Wild at Rattlesnake Ledge

•February 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday I hiked the Rattlesnake Ledge trail in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The weather was uncharacteristic of February in Seattle–60 degrees and sunny–and I wanted to enjoy it while it lasts. I scoped out my options on the Washington Trails Association website and this one looked perfect: a two-mile climb to sweeping views.

As I approached the exit on 90 east, the hazy morning fog started to lift, giving way periodically to stunning glimpses of the surrounding mountains. I arrived around 9:30am and it was already busy. I forgot it was Presidents Day, but that was fine. There’s something refreshing about seeing so many people out, enjoying the park and getting exercise. At least I thought so. I hadn’t even left the parking lot when I noticed the group walking in front of me was playing music. And not just through earbuds, but with portable speakers for everyone to hear. Again and again this happened. I picked up my pace to circumvent these parties, only to inevitably come upon another. By the time I reached the ledge–and the sweeping views, as promised–I was trying really hard not to be irritated. rattlesnakeledge

I felt like an old curmudgeon, judging everyone and wishing they’d gone to the mall instead. But at least they’re out here at all, I told myself. After all, we need more people to appreciate these spaces, so we’ll preserve them. If they need to bring a little music, who am I to say they shouldn’t? Am I the nature behavior police? It was still an incredible day. I had a little space to eat my snack, write, and savor the sun on my face. It was practically spring. So what if a handful of prepubescents needed to embellish the experience with today’s top 40?

I waited for them to leave so I could have at least a little resting time without their soundtrack (and to give them a good head start on the return). Just a few minutes of listening to the wind or birds or whatever was already there. But as soon as they left another boisterous, musical pack of youth replaced them. I collected my things and started the descent. I tried to let it go, convinced I was still being unreasonably cranky, but continued to mull over what it meant on the now even busier trail. More people. More people with music. One guy veered toward me, eyes down, smart phone in hand. As I passed the trailhead at the bottom I stopped trying to suppress my annoyance. I found a picnic table next to the lake and vented into my notebook.

I imagined what I’d tell my parents when they asked me How was the hike? I’d say, Gorgeous! But it was such a zoo! I wondered: what does it really mean to compare something to a zoo? The implication is that it’s wild, like the caged animals. But my problem with the raucous teenagers wasn’t that they were being wild, it’s that they were being too civilized–music, phones, constant chattering without listening. What did make it similar to being at the zoo, was what it implies about our relationship to the natural world. That it’s something for us to dominate, or, at best, enjoy as a fleeting source of entertainment. A pretty backdrop for a new Facebook profile picture. Another place to “check in.” I tried to overlook this because I thought at least people are getting outside. At least they’re appreciating this beauty. But are they? I sensed no aura of awe or mystery or wonder. Hardly any respect, let alone reverence. Barely appreciation.rattlesnakeledge2

However, down next to the lake, it wasn’t so bad. People were skipping stones on the water’s surface; others were napping on the grass; some just gazing off into the distance. Children were running around, running wild, you might say. But there were no gadgets defining the terms of their play, just (I hope, perhaps naively) pure imagination. A man in a bright red jumper and yellow shoes bent over, placed his head on the ground, tripoded his arms and lifted his legs in the air, turning the world upside down. The children giggled and gawked in amazement.

I don’t want to dictate how others “should” act. Surely we don’t need more signage cluttering the park that describes “acceptable” behavior (though I admit this was my initial impulse), or more rules and regulations. I’d like to think we don’t need any of that. I feel like an old lady in church scolding a child for talking. Maybe because this place is the closest thing I have to a church. I may have given up on God, but not on the notion of something sacred. Something that makes me feel small. Something worth pausing for. Listening to. A place for peace and quiet. A place to be wild.


What I Think About When I Think About Running

•October 25, 2014 • 1 Comment

For most of my life I’ve hated running. Or, perhaps I just couldn’t fathom the attraction to running for the sake of running. I tolerated it as a necessary evil during basketball and soccer, when I was running toward something or someone with a purpose. But I was slow and clumsy and running laps during practice was torture. I’ve also always had weak knees. In middle school I had to wear knee braces because occasionally, without warning, they would give out on me, leading me to feel like running was something that could break me at any moment. Being the tallest girl in my class, with the longest legs, did not yield itself as an advantage. I was lanky and awkward and uncoordinated. In college, I talked myself into spending thirty minute stints on the treadmill a few times each week (during a good week), but only as a means of justifying my nightly bowl of cocoa puffs and weekend beer drinking. Eventually I gravitated toward exercise that didn’t make me feel (quite as) ridiculous or involve pummeling my joints on concrete.

Then a few years ago I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (at the ecstatic recommendation of a friend who also hates running) and, like many others, was completely enthralled by the story. I still didn’t like running, but now I wanted to like running. I passed on the barefoot bandwagon, but I invested in a decent pair of shoes. I started paying attention to my form and taking smaller steps. I read training books and books by other runners. I started small. One mile. Two. Three. A 5K. This was doable. I still wasn’t in love, and it still took a lot of prodding and self guilt-tripping to get me out the door, but I felt good when I was done. So I kept doing it.

Perhaps I wasn’t feeling the magic running kool-aid because I wasn’t going far enough. In order to really tap into “the zone” and nirvana-like “runner’s high” that so many people raved about, I had to go farther. So I signed up for the 2012 DC Rock N Roll Half Marathon and bought the “No Meat Athlete” Training Plan. 13.1 miles seemed impossible, but I was assured that if I stuck to the plan I could do it. And at first it was fine. Four, five, six miles. Fine–exciting even. Maybe I wasn’t so fragile. Seven, eight…and then my left foot started to hurt. Really hurt. Not just when I was running, but cycling and walking too. After resting and icing and implementing all the suggestions friends and the internet endorsed, I went to the doctor. Tendinitis, he said. Shit, I said.

So my training stopped and I didn’t run the race. Clearly my body just isn’t meant for this, I thought. Perhaps some people aren’t born to run. But the urge never left and when I found myself in Seattle last March with out my road bike and only my running shoes, I decided to give it another go. I’d start slow. Really slow. Ease into it and see what happens. No expectations. No disappointment. By June I was up to a comfortable 4-5 miles, and in addition to running through my parents’ paved neighborhood I’d found a beautiful network of trails nearby in the Paradise Valley Conservation Area. Trail running was a lot more fun. It felt adventurous. Dodging around Douglas firs and White Pines, leaping over the roots of Western Hemlocks, I found a sense of play. Or maybe I just liked to pretend I was on the forest moon of Endor outrunning storm troopers after having fallen from my speeder bike. Whatever gets you through it.

Now in Boulder, it’s a town with over 300 days of sunshine a year, a moderate climate, dozens of trails, boasted as an “athlete’s dream town” by the Economic Council, and rated “The #1 Sports Town in America” by Outside Magazine. It’s home to some of the best runners in the country. I still didn’t consider myself a real runner, and I still didn’t love it, but maybe the culture in Boulder would help push me to the next level. I had a solid foundation; maybe now I was ready for 13.1 miles. Perhaps the magic kool-aid could finally be mine. I wasn’t willing to lose another $100 on registration in the event I got injured, so while I was tempted by the music and cheering and pageantry of the Denver Rock N Roll, I decided to do it on my own and plot my own course. I excavated my old training plan and started again.

One of my sister’s friends, John, is a real runner. An ultra-runner. I started picking his brain–asking for tips and advice. He’s light years away from where I am, or even want to be, but he kindly humors me and treats my ambitions seriously. In August, when he and his wife were over for dinner, I chatted with him as he stoked a grill full of struggling barbeque coals. I told him I was worried that I might not be designed for running. “I don’t believe that,” he said. He described his own history, fraught with injuries and set-backs and it dawned on me that running isn’t something one is necessarily born to–or not to–do. It’s not that simple. It’s probably different for everyone and I wasn’t helping myself by believing it was one or the other. I don’t usually subscribe to notions of fate or destiny, so why indulge a similar kind of superstition here? He said I had a runner’s build, which surprised me. I still thought of my height as a hindrance and that I was pretending to be something I wasn’t.

The next morning I woke up with a slight tickle in my throat. Maybe I was getting sick. Maybe I should rest. Maybe I shouldn’t push it. But talking to John had inspired me. I had to stop thinking of myself as frail, and I knew if I didn’t at least try it would be for the wrong reasons. So I took off for my long run of the week–7 miles. Back to where I was before the tendinitis two years ago. But this time, instead of focusing on getting to the end, and therefore what it would mean if I did or didn’t make it, whether I was born for this or not, I decided I’d already won the day by showing up. That none of that really mattered and instead I would just put one foot in front of the next. That’s it. I literally didn’t look or think beyond that. And that changed everything. It didn’t taste like kool-aid. It wasn’t magic. But I realized why running for the hell of running might be worth something. I finished that run a little sore– my body wasn’t immune to the stress–but elated. And I didn’t get sick.

Eight, nine, ten miles. Ten miles was triumphant. It’s a wonderfully round, dignified number. Eleven was fine, but hurt. Not slicing pain, but ok-this-is-fine-but-please-let-it-be-over-soon aches. I followed my training plan dutifully, tapering off my mileage after that. So when I woke up this morning I told myself I was ready. I’d followed the formula. It was only 2 more miles than 11. I’d mapped my course, adding on to what I’d already done and was familiar with. I was excited. If I could do this it would be a significant accomplishment, made sweeter by so many years of self-doubt and the previous failed attempt. Caffeinated and feigning confidence, I stuffed a chocolate Clif shot in my shirt, and left my sister’s house just after 7:30am. The weather was perfect–cool, not cold, the sun just starting to claim the day.The first few miles were fine. Nothing spectacular but nothing discouraging either. My one foot in front of the next approach has taught me patience. Every mile that feels uninspired is often followed by one that feels buoyant and liberating. You just need to ride the waves and keep going. It can be that simple. Somewhere around mile 6 I started the only challenging ascent of an otherwise moderately rolling route. This would be the hardest part, I told myself. After that it was literally all down hill and I was rounding the bend of my loop, heading home. My body was starting to feel it. My knees. My outer hips. Not excruciating, but gradually starting to throb. Soon, I thought, the hurt would be overwhelmed by excitement, and the joy of attaining my goal. Nirvana.

Then I took a wrong turn. The trails in North Boulder weave through neighborhoods and around schools and still looks the same to me. I’d only done this part once before and evidently didn’t remember it well enough. Somewhere I zigged right when I should have zagged left, and suddenly found myself on Iris which I knew was not where I should be at this point. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. I found the Diagonal and made it over to 47th, and roughly back on track, but how many miles had I cut off? How could I compensate for them? My neat, precisely planned course was fucked. FUCK. There would be no triumphant home stretch if I didn’t know if I was actually finishing the full 13.1, and I wouldn’t know until I got back and could re-calculate. And now my legs really really hurt. Nothing was broken or sprained but everything was screaming. I took a break to walk, but that was worse. My patience was gone and my head was spinning with stories about what to do and what it would mean if I failed. I couldn’t, I reasoned, couldn’t celebrate 12.9 miles, even though it would still be the farthest I’d ever run in my life.

When I made it back to the Goose Creek Path where I was supposed to turn right for the last mile home, I turned left and decided to take a short detour to Cottonwood Lake and back. It would add something and then at least I tried. I knew once I got back I wasn’t going to want to run out again to make up the distance, even if it was just a lap around the block–a decidedly unsexy solution. I continued to swear and sulk in the disappointment I had tried to avoid, wincing with every sluggish step. The prairie dogs chirped at me as I shuffled past, no longer the supportive onlookers I’d imagined they’d be. And then, somewhere in the last mile, I gave up.

I gave up on the stories and went back to one step in front of the next because I couldn’t muster the energy to berate myself anymore. It hurt too much and I was tired and hungry. It was what it was. Just before 10:30am I climbed the steps to my sister’s house and immediately logged in to Map My Run. I erased my planned course and started over, making the necessary changes and watching tensely as the mileage increased with each marker.

13.55 miles.

I still don’t necessarily love running. Even with my relief at having surpassed my goal, getting it didn’t feel like I thought it would. And that’s probably why I’ll keep running. It’s messy–and that’s what makes it meaningful.

The River

•August 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“I don’t want to scare you, but you should know that last week a man went missing.”

Devon works for an outfitter in Moab and tells us this as he’s driving to Potash, where we’re about to put in to the Colorado River for a three day canoe trip. One of my best friends, Keri, is getting married in a few months and this is her “bachelorette party.” It’s us, our other best friend, Strother, and her sister, Kelly. Devon has just finished his regular safety spiel and this is his last word of business.

“The park service has been going up and down the river looking for his body and you might run into them.” He doesn’t know the details of what happened, only that a hiker was separated from his group, alcohol was involved, and he likely drowned. The story sobers our excitement, but since it appears he was a victim of his own poor decisions I’m not too worried. We have a cooler full of beer and whiskey, but I don’t plan on getting drunk and wandering off alone. After a two day road trip down from Montana, through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I’m just grateful we don’t have to worry about grizzly bears. The only recent incident that required an emergency evacuate on the river, was when someone went into anaphylactic shock after being stung by a bee. Otherwise, it seems like the worst we have to fear is tipping our canoes, and Keri has promised us a smooth, easy ride. When Devon offers us some general paddling instructions, she tells him: “We plan to do as little paddling as possible.”

But this is not the case. Even though this stretch of the Colorado has few rapids, an intense wind greets us immediately. Strother and I share a canoe, and even though this is our first canoe trip, between the two of us we have a decent amount of kayaking and whitewater rafting experience. He’s steering from the back and I’m paddling per his directions in front, but we still spin in circles, barely able to stay straight, constantly feeling like we are on the verge of capsizing. In addition, the sun is as relentless as the wind.  I bought a hat to keep the sun off my face and shoulders, as Keri advised, but it doesn’t have a chin strap, so I have to keep my head down to prevent it from blowing away, severely limiting my vision. I’m reluctant to remove the hat altogether, exposing the skin I doused in sunscreen hours earlier, but I’m sure has sweated off by now. I’m fair skinned and had a tryst with melanoma in college, so I heed Keri’s warning: “You don’t want to get sunburned on the first day.” So I keep paddling, paddling hard, head down, hoping we don’t tip and forfeit our provisions for the next two days to the bottom of the river.

There is no rest. The river is high and the banks barriered with thick foliage and high canyon walls. After nearly two hours we finally come to a break, following a side canyon further and further back until we can pull our canoes onto sand and enjoy a respite. We settle into what shade we can find, open beers and retrieve lunch from the coolers. We’re thrilled to be off the river, but the wind doesn’t relent. Huge gusts carry walls of sand through the canyon, into our faces and hair and food, requiring us to clutch our hats and close our eyes. We study the map that Devon let us borrow, but we don’t know where we are. The stress of just staying upright in the canoes prevented us from taking much note of our surroundings and identifying landmarks that would locate us on the map. An hour later the wind hasn’t let up and we dread going back out, but decide to push on and pull off at the next available side canyon where we can set up camp for the night.

This time I abandon my hat, reapply sunscreen, and borrow a bandana from Kelly to cover my forehead and scalp. At first, part two of the journey isn’t much better. I paddle as hard as I can, my shoulders and arms throbbing; Strother and I are exhausted and frustrated. I am sure I’m doing something wrong. Kelly and Keri aren’t nearly as put out, and Strother is much more water savvy than me. I’m the novice, I’m the weak link, if the boat goes over it will surely be my fault. At Keri’s suggestion I switch with Kelly and join Keri in her canoe. After that, things get better. The wind subsides. We start to enjoy the scenery–the towering red walls against a simple blue sky, the now easy gliding of our canoes through the water. The next turn off leads into a side canyon suitable for camping and we eagerly unload, open another round of beer, and find rocks with comfortable curves for reading and napping.

As I wind down and release my anxiety, I’m grateful for the wind. Grateful for the chance to use my muscles. Grateful that our planned day of cruising and beer drinking took on an edge of adventure. And even more grateful that neither boat tipped, and that it’s over. I’m drawn to the outdoors for these moments: a draining physical/mental/emotional challenge, followed by total peace and relaxation with nothing to take you out of it. The cool, hard rocks feel so good against my spine after teetering and wobbling in the water all day. I pour my little 50ML bottle of Johnny Walker Black into my camping mug and open Lonesome Dove, the novel I’m reading at Keri’s recommendation, and immerse myself in a quintessential epic western–a fitting literary choice about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, as I’m working my way down from Montana to Texas. After an expertly prepared dinner by Keri, we’re eager to go to bed early. Strother shares my tent and we leave the fly off, both of us fighting sleep to watch the stars arrive.

In the morning we take our time getting up, preparing maté and granola for breakfast. A few strong gusts of wind ripping through the canyon make us nervous, but fortunately, this day is exactly what we hoped–calm, easy paddling. We resume our original positions, I’m in a canoe with Strother, and when we’re not chatting, we fall into a meditative gaze and pace. The lap of the paddle pets the water. The sun’s warmth hugs without smothering. We have two definitive landmarks to watch for that will locate us on the map– two signs at different points along the river welcoming us to Canyonlands. I wasn’t expecting neon flashing lights, but the first sign is so small and unobtrusive that if Strother hadn’t caught it we’d have missed it. We stop at a sandbar for lunch and try to guess what time it is. Everything is going so well. So beautiful, so fun. We’re in no rush to get off the river, but there’s a popular campsite just beyond the second sign so we set that as our destination and continue on.

When we see a powerboat approaching we veer to the right so it can pass, as Devon instructed us, but as it approaches we realize that it’s the park service.

“Has anyone told you that we’re looking for something?” asks one of the two rangers. “Yes,” Strother and I nod, reminded of the missing man.

“Well, we found what we were looking for,” he replies.

“OK. Thank you.”

Strother and I stop paddling and wait for Keri and Kelly to receive the same news and catch up. There’s not much to say. They found the body. And yet we are all struck by the delivery of that information. The tact and reverence and non-sensationalizing of those limited words, but also the non-naming, non-identifying, non-human ambiguity. They didn’t find a person or a body. Just what they were looking for. I am relieved that the case has closure, but I suppose I was hoping he might still be found. Afterall, if Aron Ralston survived 127 hours pinned in a slot canyon not far from here, cutting off his own arm with a dull knife to free himself, then perhaps an equally terrifying/amazing scenario would discover this man alive. We paddle on, thoughtfully, holding a silence for the lost man a little longer.

The campsite we are looking for is occupied, and as Keri explains it would be poor river etiquette to intrude, we keep going. Around the next bend Strother and I, still in the lead, see a small structure on the right bank. We quickly veer in that direction, and once we pull our canoes on shore, discover it’s a developed campsite, with shaded picnic tables and the structure is an outhouse. Looking at the map, it’s clear we’re at Lathrop Canyon. We explore the area, and Keri and I follow a dirt road that supposedly leads to a hiking trail. We hear voices ricocheting off the canyon walls, disguising their source. At first we’re certain they’re coming from above and any moment we’ll see a group of people look down on us, but we turn a corner and find two men and their teenage sons in cycling kits walking toward us. They’ve abandoned their bikes in search of the river to rest and cool off. We lead them back to the river, chatting along the way about where they’re from and where they’re going.

That night we open a bag of wine, and talk about relationships and children and reminisce about the life Keri and Strother and I shared living together in DC group house. We plug speakers into our ipods, dancing in the desert dusk, and prompt Strother to rap along with Nikki Minaj until the speakers run out of batteries. It’s usually hard for me to sleep outside, but I’m a little drunk and pass out quickly. I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Outside the moon pours grey light on everything and I don’t need my headlamp to see where I’m going.  When I camp in the woods I hate getting out of the tent in the middle of the night. The shadows and darkness and thought of suddenly coming face-to-face with a bear terrify me. But out here it’s different. I feel small and insignificant, comforted by the space and expansive star-clad sky. I never get back into a deep sleep and around 6am Strother rolls onto my side of the tent, prompting me to get up, collect wood for a fire, and prepare breakfast.

We get ready for a few more hours of paddling before our pick up, but as we’re breaking down camp Devon pulls up and we decide to load out then. It’ll clearly make things easier for him, and this way we can relax and see more of the river. It’s another hot day, but the wind created by the speed boat makes it chilly and I lean into the sun. The rhythm of the boat cutting the water is hypnotizing. We go all the way down to the confluence, pick up another group of canoers there, and three hours later we are back at Potash.

In the shuttle on the way back to the outfitter we learn more about the deceased hiker. Apparently they found mountain lion tracks alongside his. Apparently this all happened at Lathrop Canyon, where we camped the night before. A story that had already been hovering over our trip suddenly felt even closer, and I’m struck by our physical proximity to what happened. I didn’t realize how close we were to mountain lions. We’d been warned about snakes and scorpions, but not mountain lions. As much as I love going out into the wilderness, trading my phone and connectivity for space and solitude, I also love coming back. There’s always a sense of relief at having “made it.” I feel the same way every time I land on an airplane, like I’ve cheated death once again.

Several weeks later I look up the story of the drowned man online, wondering if any other details have been made public. The incident occurred at dusk, just three hours into their trip. Only a few of the longer articles mention the mountain lion tracks. According to his friends, it looked as if he’d started to run, then crawled through thick tamarisk brush to get to the river. “He didn’t have a life jacket on, he wasn’t a good swimmer and he didn’t like the water. The mystery is why he would go into the river,” said one of them. Apparently he had started up the trail to follow his friends, and they heard him call out to them, but never saw him. I recall how the canyon walls can throw sound, playing tricks with your hearing. Another article stated that “alcohol is also believed to have played a role.” The San Juan County Sheriff said, “It is our understanding he had consumed about eight to 10 beers in a relatively short time. We believe it to be a contributing factor.” I wonder how. If he did see a mountain lion and got in the river for protection, was that a poor decision? What should he have done? The Sheriff doesn’t believe the mountain lion theory. He thinks it’s more likely that he thought his group left without him, and went down to the river to be spotted by another passing boat. But that seems even less plausible to me. Of course, it’s impossible for me to judge; there’s so much I don’t know. And now, when I think of that man, even after seeing his picture, and reading his name, I still just hear the park ranger’s voice telling us they found what they were looking for. I still just hear that silence.


More Adventures in the Moral Matrix: Climate of Doubt

•July 19, 2014 • 1 Comment

Not only did learning to really listen improve my relationship with my mother, it helped me to start sorting out where I fit on the political spectrum. Liberals love to think of themselves as “open-minded” and the kind of people that “think outside the box.” But it may be more accurate to say they just think in different boxes, myself included. I don’t think I actually have enough information to truly “think for myself.” For example, I still don’t fully understand how the economy and capitalism work, so how can I make a strong case for or against what I know so little about? I’m drawn to leftist concerns about ethics and distribution of wealth, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of how it all works, I’m at a loss. After all, some conservatives, like Arthur C. Brooks, will argue that capitalism is actually the most moral system. And, as someone that isn’t an economist, that position can be compelling too.

So basically I think I’ve done very little genuine thinking for myself. However, I have resisted pledging allegiance to a single party. I’ve always registered as an Independent, though only now am I starting to embrace that ambiguity. I’ve been skeptical of Democrats and toted the notion that “they are part of the system too,” but I’ve still voted for them. I’ve still defended them. And now as I look at the opposing philosophies that govern each party– specifically as they pertain to the role and size of government– I find sincerely myself standing apart. I want everyone to have health insurance, but I worry about the government’s competency to manage it. I want some limitations put on how businesses do business, but I don’t want independent small ones to suffer under too much regulation. I want the government to protect our rights and safety, but I also want local communities and people to take responsibility for themselves. There really is no party for me, except the amorphous Independent. I would have thought this would make me more akin to conservatives, that it would make me less threatening and easier to talk to than a typical Obama-thumper, but apparently this is not the case.

“That’s a cop out!” Faye declares after she inquires about my political leanings and I tell her I’m an Independent. Faye is one of my mother’s good friends. She’s older than my mom, short, stout, with a terse smile and thinning strawberry-blonde hair, but the fierce attitude of a redhead. She speaks her mind unequivocally and unapologetically, which is refreshing–to a point.

“I’m an Independent too,” Dad chimes in. I’m grateful he’s sitting next to me. We’re at happy hour before a WOW (Women of Washington) event, and he’s usually my partner in solidarity at these things. I’m put off by Faye’s retort, but try not to let it show. I’m not a confrontational person anyway, and I have no intention of getting into an argument with a woman I just met that’s old enough to be my grandmother, no matter how much she needles me. As Tea Partiers who are in many ways disillusioned by Republicans, I thought Faye would appreciate my attempt to distance myself from Democrats, but apparently unless I think just like her, it doesn’t matter. I know my mom appreciates my efforts; I also know she laments our differences. She talks about how she’s coming around to see that her parents were right, as if it’s inevitable that I will one day do the same, so I might as well give in now. It seems like everyone agrees that we should “think for ourselves,” but what everyone really means by that is, “you should think like me.”

As I listen to Faye and my mother and their friend Dorothy rattle off their list of political complaints (many of which concern me too), I think about Thoreau’s response to his elders:

No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof…Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe…I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

I can’t help but find humor in Thoreau’s tenacity and abrasiveness. He’s as indignant as Faye. I agree with him in one sentence and chuckle at his gumption in the next. Certainly we shouldn’t trust something simply because everyone before us has; but just as certainly the old do have important advice for the young. I, too, now have lived some thirty years on this planet and not only have I received incredibly valuable advice from my seniors, I crave it! Not so that I can swallow it mindlessly, but so that I can experiment with it. Not all advice is useful– the trick is developing your own wisdom to tell the difference. Even more tricky still, is respecting your elders, even if you think they’re being ridiculous. Nowhere was this more challenging for me than when I agreed to attend my mother’s book club, featuring the climate change denying book, The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism: Mankind and Climate Change Mania.

I can appreciate my mother’s rants about big government, but when she skoffs and and screams about the absurdity of global warming, “not reacting” as my dad (or any Buddhist monk) patiently advises, seems impossible. And yet I signed myself up to do just that when I agreed to go to her book club. I was determined to read the book and listen to how and why these women deny global warming. But I wasn’t going to leave it at that. Listening is important, but so is conversation, and when it comes to the environment I feel I have a moral obligation to say something. Indeed, the stakes don’t get much higher. So I was going to listen, but I was also going to speak. And I was going to be prepared.

I started by reading the book and approaching it as I would any academic text: who is the author? what makes him an authority on the subject? is his argument supported with evidence and clear reasoning? Perhaps this was unfair since it’s not an academic text at all. The cover makes this pretty clear, but if that’s not an aesthetic tip, the author, Steve Goreham, is, admittedly, not a scientist. He has a degree in electrical engineering, and he’s a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute is known for its defense of the tobacco industry and denying that smoking causes lung cancer. So not only do they have a track record of denying well-supported scientific claims, they’re also funded by Exxon. But what’s tricky about reading this book, as a non-scientist, is that he includes graphs and charts and figures that are difficult to question if you’re not immersed in the field. However, I knew what the citations should look like, and while there are ample footnotes, none of them are included in the book itself. You have to look them up online, and once you do, you see that he doesn’t cite any scientific literature. He refers to peer-reviewed scientific literature, but doesn’t actually cite studies that support his claim. Because I’ve spent the last four and a half years teaching college freshmen how to appropriately use sources in academic writing, I knew how to do this, but someone that is completely divorced from academia probably wouldn’t, which seemed to be the case when I stepped into a gorgeous living room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Lake Washington on Mercer Island, to discuss the book with my mother’s friends.

First, everyone is incredibly kind to me. Incredibly generous and happy I’m there. As we socialize and pour ourselves tea and coffee, they ask about my life and my plans the way moms do. I tell them about my job in India, and I feel like I’m 18 again, getting ready to go to college and leave home for the first time. I appreciate their interest and support, even as some of them express muffled concern or confusion at my choice. Eventually everyone takes a seat and discussion turns to the book. No one mentions who the author is or his expertise. No one discusses the footnotes. They question who stands to profit off global warming being “real,” but not who stands to profit off it being denied.

What became clearest to me as I listened, was that these women are scared– not that the oceans will rise and flood $6 trillion worth of property on the east coast, of course, but that global warming is being used as justification for government control, thus threatening our liberty and freedom. I can hear my liberal peers balking at this notion, dismissing it as conspiracy theory paranoia. I’ve thought so too, and to a certain extent I still do. But these are real people with very real worries. And we can’t honestly say that the prospect of a government getting too much power and doing terrible things is a ludicrous idea. We don’t need to cite examples of when this has happened. We all know it. Indeed, skepticism of the government is essential for a healthy democracy. In fact, we may need that kind criticism as we look for solutions, but by denying the problem all together you’re excluding yourself from that conversation. That’s what we need right now, and that’s what I tried to tell my mother’s book club.

When the conversation started to wrap up, I raised my hand. I thanked them for letting me come. I said I shared their concerns– that I valued liberty and freedom, and didn’t want to see those sacrificed. I tried to agree with everything that had been said, with which I could honestly agree. Then I explained why I questioned the author’s credibility, the lack of peer-reviewed scientific literature that supports his position, his connection with the Heartland Institute, and their connection to the oil industry. I recommended the Frontline documentary Climate of Doubt, which fairly gives voice to the prominent climate change deniers, specifically the Heartland Institute, while illustrating how they fit into the larger scientific conversation. A really nice dialogue followed. Of course, I didn’t change anyone’s mind, and they didn’t change mine. At one point our hostess said to me sweetly, “It’s clear you’re trying to think for yourself.” And while it didn’t seem like I could say the same to them, I knew they were trying to too.

Climate change deniers are often painted as obscenely rich oil tycoons, or backwards, ignorant, nature-hating, fundamentalist, evolution-denying Christians. But my mother isn’t stupid and she doesn’t hate nature. She’s an avid gardener. She composts. She recycles. She loves birds and has been spending hours–literally–online watching a nest of eagles give birth to and raise their young. She might prefer sleeping in a bed to sleeping in the woods, but she values the natural world. If I was to borrow Thoreau’s bite I’d say denying climate change is simply beneath my mother’s intelligence. I cannot follow her reasoning. It’s one thing to disagree with the proposed responses to climate change, but it’s illogical to say: climate change doesn’t exist because I don’t like how liberals propose we fix it, and that’s all I hear from her and her cohort.

My mother’s parents were right about many things. I value their thrift and “waste not want not” attitude of conservation, remnants of the Great Depression that seem to have fallen away in a culture driven by consumption. Steve Goreham paints liberals as lunatics that want to revive a horse and buggie stone age in order to save the planet. But what most of us want is actually a conservative notion; it’s a return to my grandparents’ wisdom. So why are we fighting about this?

HOME: Out of the Moral Matrix

•June 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

During March, April and May I was living in Seattle with my parents. My plan was to stay here until I figure out my next step: getting to Southeast Asia. And right now, that looks like New Delhi. A professor and colleague of mine from American University is part of the English Department at a new university in India and encouraged me to apply as a tutor. I did, and was offered the job of Coordinator for the Writing Center. I eagerly accepted. The position consists of managing the tutors, and helping them develop the critical thinking curriculum. That’s basically all I know, and that’s probably all they know too. Because they are opening for the first time this fall, I expect much of my job will be figuring things out as I go. I’m naturally drawn to order, stability, consistency, and predictability, so taking on a position like this, in India, of all places, should sufficiently challenge my sensibilities. And when I’m not working I have the rest of Southeast Asia next door to explore.

Aside from a few summers during college, I haven’t lived with my parents since I was 18. Since then I’ve had a five day rule: five days is the “just right” amount of time during which I can enjoy my parents without going stir crazy or fighting with my mom. So while I was genuinely excited to see them and settle in somewhere, I was also aware that my enthusiasm might have an expiration date. I hoped to keep myself busy enough that we wouldn’t step on one another’s toes. I eased into a really nice routine: getting up at dawn, writing for an hour or two, going for a run, going to yoga, lunch at noon, more writing and reading, practicing the guitar, then preparing dinner. My mom happily “gave me the kitchen” and to their apparent delight, I made them a vegan meal every evening. Afterward my dad and I watched a movie or I went back to my room to read until bed. This was peppered with other things too: twice a week I taught a yoga class to three women in the neighborhood; when it wasn’t raining I’d pull weeds in the garden, listening to various podcasts; I took a 6-week nonfiction workshop at the Hugo House on Sundays in Capitol Hill; I also–finally–learned how to drive stick shift.

For the most part, everything went better than I expected. Living at home was like being a kid again, except I got to do everything right and I didn’t take it for granted. I was eager to do my “homework,” practice my instrument, and I always ate my vegetables. I was happy to take on household chores: feeding the cats, cleaning the kitchen, and other tasks as they arose. I used to cringe when I heard my mom call me from across the house: “Catherine!” I knew she needed something and I resented the expectation to drop whatever I was doing and assist. But now it was easier to quell that reaction. My patience surprised me. Now I can truly appreciate my parents, I recognize what a luxurious safety net it is to come home, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to reciprocate as much as possible. I was thrilled to be there to properly celebrate their birthdays, Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day. My mom aptly commented: “You’re a lot more fun to have home now than you were when you were sixteen.”

That said, living with my mom sometimes feels like being in a Luigi Pirandello play–I started to question reality. Our skies often seemed to be different colors. And when someone insists that the sky is purple, again and again, you start to wonder if it really is. To a certain extent, this is fantastic. I loved my Modern Drama course in college precisely because it was a total mind-fuck and I left each class feeling like my head would explode. But this mind-fuck was different. I’ve spent most of my life in one liberal bubble after another–college, my friends, graduate school, DC. There have been shades of difference in those communities, certainly, but overall I’ve been surrounded by people who hold similar views. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes sense to surround ourselves with people like us, that share our values. However, as a result my perception of the conservative position has been painted in broad strokes from afar. I suppose I felt that my mother sufficiently filled the conservative quota in my life. She embodied that voice, and one was enough. I felt like listening to her was an adequate demonstration of my “open-mindedness.” I read the emails she’d send to me, I even listened to Rush Limbaugh (once–an incident that ended in tears). The problem is I was still allowing that perspective to exist as a caricature in the political landscape. I allowed them to be those crazy people that hate gays, want to control women’s bodies, and let the rich prosper while the poor suffer. I was hearing my mom without really trying to understand her.

My mother has always voted republican, and she’s always been reasonably informed about politics, but when President Obama was elected things changed. In part she became more politically active because she could (her children are gone and she has the time), but her engagement also seemed motivated by a deep fear that I’d never seen in her before. She was terrified that Obama’s “socialist agenda” would “destroy” the country. And it wasn’t just that, as a democrat, he had a different vision for how to achieve a prosperous country; she believes he is intentionally trying to destroy the country. This is where our skies start to turn different colors. If Obama was as leftist as she claimed, then shouldn’t liberals be elated by his performance as president? But they’re not. Most progressives are actually disappointed, though for different reasons than conservatives. They claim he’s compromising too much, while republicans say he’s not compromising at all. So what’s really going on? What’s the reality?

My mom’s terror and distrust of anyone on the left is very real. For awhile now I’ve accepted that my mother won’t change. I have no illusions that I can change her mind about certain things. But I have started to hope that maybe I can ease her fear. It’s one thing to think that liberal policies will destroy the country, it’s quite another to think liberals are trying to destroy the country. The intention is important. And just as she is the only conservative in my life, I am one of the only liberals in hers (she actually has a lot of liberal friends, but I think they avoid discussing politics). Her world is just as polarized as mine, and most of what she knows about liberals comes from the conservative talk radio she listens to–all day, every day. But I knew this had to go both ways. If I was hoping to assuage her fears, I had to be open to seeing conservatives in the same light. In other words, I had to honestly seek to understand her world as much as I hoped she’d understand mine. Again, not to change anyone’s mind, just to really see each other, and maybe not find “common ground,” but at least a common reality.

I think part of what feeds political fear, is the sense that you’re not being heard, that you’ve lost your voice in the national conversation. My mother feels that the media is overwhelmingly biased in favor of the left and that universities are grounds for liberal brain-washing. Conservatives feel bullied by liberals. So my first project at home was just to listen. Really listen. Listen, without the intention of talking back or defending myself. Listen, with the intention of putting myself in her position. Listen, so that before we had any conversation, she felt heard. When five days was our typical visit, this was hard to do because whatever she said inevitably upset me and led to an argument. I didn’t want to fight with her in such a short amount of time, so I avoided listening and thus avoided these conversations. I just wanted to keep the peace. Occasionally we’d exchange long, thoughtful emails about various issues, but that was time consuming and I couldn’t keep up with it. Now I had time.

The best part about listening is that it actually ends up feeling amazing. Not at first. At first when someone says something I disagree with or angers me, my entire body gets tense, I get that swelling feeling in my chest, I can feel my blood pressure rise. It’s terrible. But if I ride that out, and breathe, and ignore the urge to talk (yell) over that person, to tell them they’re wrong, then eventually that wave of frustration dissipates. Eventually it goes away, and afterward I feel better because I exercised control over myself. I didn’t lose it. And because I am not thinking of what to say next and trampling over what that person says, I hear more too. Maybe even listening long enough to hear something new, something that resonates. And because I don’t say anything in the heat of the moment, I have time to carefully put my thoughts together before–if–I respond. I’m not a particularly articulate person verbally. Especially when I feel flustered or pressured, I fumble and stutter, and probably end up sounding incoherent and undermining the very point I’m trying to make. Listening helps me slow down and takes the pressure off saying anything.

My mother is not an idle woman. Between two book clubs, playing violin in a symphony orchestra, working in her garden, working in the church garden, being secretary of her DAR chapter, and attending Women of Washington functions, it’s amazing she ever ate, let alone made dinner each night. As part of my resolve to listen I accompanied her to most of the events she invited me to, especially those hosted by the Women of Washington, a conservative organization “focused on empowering women to analyze local, national and global issues…and inspire confidence to articulate our core values and the virtues of America’s founding principles.” These core values are: free markets, limited government, personal responsibility, and strong national defense. I heard Grace Marie Turner from the Galen Institute talk about health care reform; Catherine Englebrecht recount her experience with the IRS and voter fraud; Washington State Rep Matt Manweller advocate the free market; Dr. Jonathan Matusitz explain the threat posed by Islam. I also went to this debate downtown between conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro, economist Paul Guppy, Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, and lawyer Rebecca Smith over Seattle’s proposed $15 minimum wage. (That will likely constitute a blog post of its own.) At each event I just listened, earnestly, and in the car on the way home we’d talk about it.

It was easiest to talk to my mom about economics. First, because we both, admittedly, have a limited understanding of it and are seeking to learn more, together. And, because I don’t fully understand how it works, I don’t think I can have a firm political position yet. Indeed, of all the issues this is one I am sincerely “open-minded” about–I’m really trying to figure out where I stand. So while my mother is firmly in favor of free markets and limited government involvement, I’m not invested in opposing that. I know enough to be very skeptical of capitalism (very skeptical), but I also know it’s not going anywhere and so I’m more inclined to figure out how it can work–ethically–and she is too. We come to ethics and morality from different places, but we’re heading in the same direction.

However, there are some issues that I’m not open-minded about and think it’s pointless to discuss, like gay marriage. I’m happy to discuss the institution of marriage in general, but I’m simply not going to entertain the idea that some of my best friends shouldn’t be allowed to marry the people they love, just like I wouldn’t entertain the idea that some of my friends shouldn’t sit at the front of the bus. And I think that’s reasonable. “Open-mindedness” is all well and good, but it has limits too. Liberals have a reputation for being universalist to a fault, and I don’t want to fall down that hole. The problem with gay marriage is that my mom and I really are living in different realities. Her reality is one in which the Bible, the word of God, explicitly states that homosexuality is wrong, and my reality…doesn’t. Game over. When she engages me I can talk about it as a matter of constitutionality, but this doesn’t go anywhere productive. I may also still be too immature. It gets very emotional, very quickly. I still can’t not take her position as an affront on some of my closest friends and family. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing (the personal is political, and we needn’t divorce our feelings from reason), but at this point it isn’t good for my relationship with my mom, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on.

Last week’s episode of OnBeing with Krista Tippett featured Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at the Stern School of Business at NYU. He has a fascinating explanation for why liberals and conservatives are so divided. He divides moral values into five categories and illustrates how these inform where we stand on the political spectrum. According to him, we’re all concerned with creating a moral society, but what specifically constitutes that morality and the values we emphasize differ from right to left. This alone was interesting, but what really drew me into the conversation was how Haidt’s research had drastically affected his own politics:

I was a self-righteous, conservative-hating, religion-hating, secular liberal. And, in doing this research over many years, and in forcing myself to watch FOX News as an anthropologist, with just, I’ve got to understand this stuff, over time, I realized, well, they’re not crazy. You know, these ideas make sense. They see things I didn’t see. The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before. That’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.

Losing that anger really is freeing. And addictive. My mom didn’t drag me to these events; I was eager to go. Once you start understanding another point of view, it’s like a puzzle that you can’t stop piecing together. That’s not to say I don’t still think some of it is crazy. I do. But it’s not all crazy and now I can start to decipher between the two. And not just on the right, on the left too. Jonathan Haidt describes the way we get trapped inside our own moral paradigms as like being in the matrix:

The matrix is a consensual hallucination…it was just the perfect metaphor for the moral world that we live in. It defines what’s true and what’s not true. It is a closed epistemic world. What I mean by that is, it has within it everything it needs to prove itself. And it has within it defenses against any possible argument that could be thrown at it. It’s impossible to see the defects in your own moral matrix…And that’s why foreign travel is so good, getting disoriented is so good, reading literature can be so good. There are ways of it getting out of your moral matrix. But it’s hard, especially in the context of any — any sort of intergroup conflict. Then it — we’re just locked into it, and our goal is defend the matrix, defeat theirs.

I had to learn to get out of my own moral matrix. This is scary and hard and exhilarating. It’s a mind-fuck in the best possible way. We love to talk about “thinking outside of the box” or “thinking for yourself”–but I don’t honestly think I started doing that until now. And, of course, the media completely derails this ambition. Unless you’re listening to all of it all the time and spending hours sifting through the various talking heads, it feels impossible to get an accurate sense of these huge conversations. Most people are just trying to defend their matrix. And I’ve come to think that sarcasm is the true enemy of civil civic discourse, from Rush to Rachel. It’s lazy rhetoric that avoids sincere dialogue and understanding. It preaches to the choir and cements the echo chambers we already live in. (Unless you’re Jon Stewart working within the genre of satire. And–ironically–for being a “fake news show” I’d argue he engages in some of the most respectful political conversations on TV.) Haidt goes on to say that we need to acknowledge our limitations and embrace humility. Sometimes we’re going to jump to conclusions and they’ll be wrong. He states: “To live virtuously as individuals and societies, we must understand how our minds are built. We must find ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness. We must respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own.”

Lions, and Tigers, and–Jobs?–Oh My!

•June 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I planned my cross-country trip to end in Seattle the last weekend in February so I could attend AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference for the first time. Not only was I hoping this would give me some practical guidance and inspiration as I started to write about my travels, but several friends from DC would be going and I was looking forward to that social interaction before hunkering down in my parents’ house for three months. My very good friend, Chet’la, would even be staying with me. But I was nervous. For years I’d heard by creative writer friends look forward to and discuss the event. It sounded intense and I started to worry I’d be overwhelmed and eventually discouraged. Right now I had this beautiful, intact fantasy that held writing as my next direction in life. What if AWP made me realize it was all a joke? Despite encouragement from friends and my workshop peers in the fall, one essay in progress and a handful of blog posts hardly qualified me as a writer. Part of me felt that I had no business going. Chet’la assuaged some of my worries. It was so great to see her, so great to have a partner for the weekend.

Each day was overwhelming, but in the best possible way. I packed my schedule with as many panels as I could sit through (several about travel writing, a few about feminism and nonfiction as a queer genre), and spent the rest of my time wandering around the book faire and visiting the tables of MFA programs I’d scouted online. By the time 5pm came each day I was ready for a happy hour. Chet’la and I would reconvene and share our day over drinks and food. We went to the Rumpus Reading one night, and had dinner with a colleague from AU another night. Each day I felt less discouraged. In fact, the collective self-doubt that most writers face was frequently mentioned. I felt less alone in my fears and more determined to get over myself.

On the final day I was tempted to skip out on the last two sessions. I was tired and eager to release myself from the inundation of information. But I’d feel better if I pushed through (getting as much as possible for my registration fee). The first was about the Creative Writing PhD–which is relatively new and pretty rare. As I entertain the notion of going back to school, this seemed especially appealing. When I finished my MA I thought eventually I’d go back for a PhD in Literature, but as I no longer saw myself wanting to be a scholar and instead was gravitating toward writing creative nonfiction, this seemed like it might be the best option for me. However, the panelists’ conversation made it clear this wouldn’t really meet my needs. They agreed that if you want time to write and focus on the craft of writing, the MFA is better. A PhD program would keep me busier with literature classes and teaching than in workshops. It was satisfying to get such a clear nudge in the MFA direction and home in on what I’m looking for. But listening to them another anxiety started to swell. I started to worry about what I’d do afterward.

One reason many of the panelists had pursued PhDs (after receiving their MFAs) was to give them an edge in the job market. Everyone spoke disparagingly of the tenure-track job search and the mounting odds against getting one–the assumption being that, aside from being a successful full-time writer (with even slimmer odds), this was the holy grail. I knew these jobs were difficult to get from my administrative position at AU. I coordinated those searches, collecting and organizing hundreds of applications for just one or two openings. As the conversation continued, I started to feel beaten before I’d even started. What was I getting into? Was it pointless to even try? As the session disbanded and everyone shuffled out, my urge to cut out on the last session and nurse my frustrations with a drink was even stronger. Yet, I also didn’t want to end my AWP experience feeling utterly defeated so I pressed on to the last session: “Isolation & Community.”

This panel was about the themes of isolation and community in writing, as well as the process of writing, and the position from which we write– about being an insider/outsider/other, in addition to self-reliance and persistence. Most of the writers were from Alaska, a state geographically isolated from the rest of the country. One writer in particular, Seth Kantner, brilliantly responded to my newly stirred angst. He recounted how his father warned him of three dangers growing up: bears, thin ice, and–a job. His father asked: “if you have a job how are you going to live?” I was instantly reminded of why I decided to take this “life sabbatical” in the first place–because I want to find a way to live, not a single, previously-defined career path.  I want to cobble together a life in which I can do what I love and live the way I want. A tenure-track job might seem more stable and secure, and to a certain extent maybe it is. But ultimately there aren’t any guarantees so I might as well pursue the life I want, not the one I’m willing to settle for. A tenure-track position is certainly appealing in many ways, but I’ve seen that it also comes with a significant amount of stress and pressure.

Perhaps I’m just being lazy. Perhaps I’m chasing a lifestyle of leisure and lack of responsibility. But it’s not work I’m avoiding, it’s the job. Jobs and work are, as Kantner was quick to clarify, not always the same thing. I want to work, and work hard, but a job may actually hinder my ability to do this. Kantner said that when he was growing up (in a sod igloo in the Alaskan tundra), everything was hard. It all seemed hard. And then when he got older he didn’t like things if they weren’t hard. It occurred to me then how much we complain about hard things. Our culture of convenience and technology embodies this, which is tragic because I’m inclined to think that the hard stuff, is the stuff. That’s the heart and soul of our crazy existence.

The conversation also touched on self-reliance. There are many ideas I clung to in my youth that I’ve since let go, having been revealed as over-simplistic responses to complicated problems (pacifism, for example). But self-reliance, especially as it conjures Thoreau, continues to resonate profoundly. The “real world” is a swift executioner. I’d just ended my travels feeling confident and open to possibility, and only a few days later one conversation about PhD programs and the job market plunged me back into a mind frame I’d spent two months trying to unravel. Fortunately the pendulum was still free to swing the other way, and I left feeling restored to my prior optimism– but with a difference. It’s not that I want to throw caution to the wind and ignore reality, thinking that I just need to “follow my dreams” and everything will be OK. Part of my attraction to the MFA is, indeed, that it would open up new job opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s just being practical. But I think I can be practical and see the world for what it is, plan accordingly, and still do what I need for myself. Still go for what I want, even if it’s hard. And that it being hard is not a reason to avoid it; it’s a reason to go for it.

The conference ends and I cherish an additional day with Chet’la before driving her to the airport. When she leaves I’m going to start what I hope will be a rigorous schedule for the next few months, consisting primarily of writing, reading, and yoga every day. I finally sit down to write and all I can hear is the Pacific Northwest rain. The room of my own has a view of my mother’s garden. I’ve tried to create a nice space: my desk has specific piles of books I’ve read, books I want to read, magazines and journals. I’ve propped up a card next to my computer to prompt me: “Begin Anywhere.”

After a couple weeks I start to worry about money. My spending has slowed considerably since staying with my parents, and even though I have some savings left and it looks like I’ll be working in India and earn money to travel further, I’m anxious anyway. Maybe I should get a part-time job. Just a little something, nothing overwhelming, nothing that will hinder my work. I scan Craigslist and it turns out the restaurant attached to the golf course in the neighborhood is hiring servers. It’s close and convenient. That could be perfect. I fill out an application. I go to an interview. I’m offered the job. I hesitate. Is this really what I want? To spend twenty hours a week serving french fries and beer to polos and khakis-clad men? There’s nothing wrong with that work and I think I could make almost any job meaningful–perhaps it will give me something to write about or help me make interesting connections…I try to reason. But when else in my life will I have this time to myself? To finally dedicate myself to what I really want to do? I turn down the job and get to work.

Portland: The 90s are Alive…

•May 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

When I wake up, soft gold fingers are reaching out from behind the train car window curtains. I pull them back and a thin layer of blushing pink sits on the horizon, patches of snow mark the ground, stoic mountains wait in the distance. I didn’t sleep particularly well. Though I was lucky to have two seats to myself, I was curled up and contorted between them. But I’m eager to watch the sunrise. So I retrieve some hot water from the cafe for my yerba maté tea bag and set up in the lounge car. It’s 7:30am– eight hours until Portland.

I put on the Lumineers and start working on my blog post about Charleston. Blogging is far more difficult and time consuming than I had expected. I’m so slow, and still trying to understand it as a genre. It seems more informal, but I fuss and tinker endlessly. I know very few people will read it, yet I feel paralyzed by how public it is. I don’t want each post to read like a boring list of what happened: “then I did this…then I did this….” I want each one to have a focus beyond where I went and what I ate. I want to practice using the devices I learned in my creative nonfiction workshop, like creating characters and writing scenes, which is hard because I often don’t remember the necessary details. It’s also difficult to distinguish between what I should disclose and what I should omit. How personal should I get? What would actually be interesting to a reader (even if they are my friends) and what would be self-indulgent? How do I respect the privacy of others and still be true to my own experience? When I get stuck I let my gaze fall out the window.

An older man sits down across from me. Talk to strangers, I remind myself. I remove my earbuds and try to open myself to conversation. Eventually he asks, “How do you like your chromebook?” We talk about that and his camera. Periodically he tells me the name of things we’re passing. He’s returning to Eugene but he’s from Virginia and we chat about that too. After making my third cup of tea, I return to my seat to read and be alone until lunch. The woman across from me has a fussy baby. I still have no patience for crying and this one smells. The entire car reeks and though I’m put out by this, I feel terrible for the mother. She desperately tries to console the child to no avail. She seems pretty incompetent, but I can’t blame her. If I were stuck alone with a screaming child I’d be more clueless than she is. She nervously rocks it and pats it and talks to it. I’m sympathetic, but the stench is so strong that I have to leave.

I go back down to the cafe for more hot water and chat with the attendant there. He asks if I am going to Portland and I say I am (I’m on the “Coast Starlight” train that runs from Los Angeles to Seattle). He says he had the best gyros there.

“From a food truck?” I ask, having read that those are popular.

“Yes,” he says, “one downtown after a show when I was drunk.”

“Sounds like a good night.”

“It was. I didn’t have to worry about calling the gyro again, or buying Plan B for the gyro. I had another gyro for breakfast.”


I laugh, probably awkwardly, thank him for the water and return to my seat, hoping the baby smell has dissipated.

When I arrive in Portland I easily walk from the station to the International Youth Hostel at 18th St and Galison. I was tempted to couch surf, but since I couldn’t find anyone to host me for both nights, I go for a cheap dormitory bunk instead. I have two more nights before I reach my parents in Seattle, and as this leg of my travels concludes, I want the freedom to do what I want without being a guest in someone else’s home. I deposit my belongings and head straight for Powell’s–the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. It’s overwhelming in the best way possible. I wander the stacks for an hour and then head down to Vegetarian House. It’s grey out which means I want something warm and comforting and right now that means Chinese food. I crack open my new purchase, Annie Proulx’s Close Range, and enjoy my Broccoli and “Chicken” with chopsticks. Afterward I mozie back to the hostel, taking in all the stores and restaurants in the Pearl District, and stopping at a cafe for some herbal tea to cut the caffeine that hasn’t tapered off yet. I look forward to a good night’s sleep, stretching out in a full length bed.

The next morning I’m up early, get coffee, and go back to Powell’s. Since books get heavy, until now I’ve only bought books that I’m going to read immediately and I’ve unloaded several along the way. But as I’m just one stop from home, and Powell’s selection is incredible, I don’t hold back anymore. I get 3 books (for only $15!) and then head to Yoga Pearl for their noon class. Afterward I eat at the attached restaurant, Prasad, that has all the obnoxiously healthy food I could dream of–elixirs and juices, salads and raw platters, and bowls. Bowls are everywhere in Portland. The basic formula is simple–a grain (brown rice or quinoa), a protein (beans or tofu or tempeh), a green (kale, broccoli…), all drenched in a yummy sauce (peanut sauce or garlic tahini…). They are hearty, filling, and the combinations seem endless.

I go back to the hostel to change and plan my evening, my last night out. I sit in the hostel lounge with my computer and tea. “Empty yourself and let the universe fill you,” says the tag on my yogi tea. I simultaneously scoff at and appreciate these little tid-bits. Sometimes they are nice reminders, other times they seem ridiculous and don’t mean anything. But right now I decide to take this as a sign to stop planning. I’m overwhelmed by the options and driving myself crazy trying to figure out what to do.  I choose a bar for a happy hour and a restaurant for dinner and the rest I’ll leave up in the air.

I hop a bus to the east side of the river, to Swift Lounge for a cheap glass of red wine and plate of brussel sprouts. When I walk in, the bartender and a woman at the bar are talking about mathematics and quantum physics. I really want to join the conversation, but can’t muster the nerve, or the knowledge, to do so. I love reading and listening to podcasts about this stuff, but I don’t know how proficient I’d be in discussing it myself. So I retreat to a stool by the window and open my book.

Then I go to Blossoming Lotus for dinner. I’m hoping to sit at a bar, but it’s a small restaurant and they don’t have one. So I take a table and feel like my singleness is taking up too much space, like my small check isn’t worth the waiter’s time. Maybe it’s just in my head. I get another bowl–quinoa and kale and avocado and sesame seeds with a tasty dressing.

I head back to the neighborhood and go to The Pope House, a bourbon lounge up the street from the hostel. I sit at the bar where an older man is chatting with the bartender. When I open my book, he asks me what I am reading: Michael Crichton’s Travels, which Jeremy recommended to me and I found used at Powell’s. I tell him that the first 50 pages are about his early years as a doctor, and the rest are about his travels.

“Are you reading it because you want to be a doctor?”

“I’m reading it because I’m traveling.”

With an accent I can’t place he tells me he’s a corporate financer and so he travels all over the world. It turns out he’s from South Africa, but he’s lived in the US for over twenty years and loves Oregon. “It’s a special place,” he says. I explain to him where I’ve been and where I’m going. “What are you looking for?” he asks. I hesitate. I don’t like this question. “I never did the backpacking thing when I was 25. But I’ve always wanted to travel more and I thought I should do it before I get too comfortable.” He extolls the wonders of Asia, especially India, where I tell him I might be working. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he says as he leaves. At first I feel like he still doesn’t get it. I’m not on a journey to “find myself.” Apparently I’m really invested in resisting that cliché. But maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I am looking for something– the possibility of connection, some kind of magic–muggle, as my couchsurfing host in Richmond would have said. It’s always in the back of my mind. I am happy being alone, but is that because it feels like I’m hovering on the possibility of not being alone? Like that bubble could burst at any moment and it’s exciting? And I do want that. That’s the truth.

I chat with the bartender too. Her name is Sarah and she’s finishing her BA at Portland State University after years away from school. It sounds like many of the students there are in a similar position. “Now I have perspective and actually know what I want to study,” she says. She’s an English major, so I ask about her classes and she tells me about her literary theory course. I ask about Foucault, one of my favorites, probably because he was one of the few I felt like I actually understood. When I leave it’s around 8:30pm, and I didn’t know what to do next. I’d like to meet more people, talk to more strangers, but I don’t really want another drink. I walk to Burnside Street, passing another bar I’d read about online, Matador. An OPEN sign is illuminated but the windows are dark and I’m hesitant to peek inside. I keep walking. I come to a bus stop and sit down while I contemplate what to do next. I start to feel like the night was a failure. I’m a little lonely. Shouldn’t I be out chatting it up with strangers? Meeting interesting people? But this is what I wanted. This loneliness. The reality is that loneliness sounds more romantic than it feels, and traveling isn’t always going to be sexy evenings out with fascinating new people. In fact, more often than not it’s going to be just this– sitting alone at a bus stop because you don’t want to go home, but you don’t know where else to go.

So I go back to the hostel lounge and write. I might as well take on the whole cliché of romantic solitude and make a night of it. In the Imagemorning I go to Prasad a second time (for an Oatmeal Bowl); then back to Powell’s for a third time, wandering, writing, and buying three more books; then back to Prasad (for the Dragon Bowl).  Portland might be my “just right” city. Not too big, not too small. It would be easy to make fun of the DIY-eco-friendly-free-range-vegan-homegrown-conscientious-living culture, except Portlandia already beat you to that punch and they don’t seem to care. They are sincere yet self-aware, and unaffected by your irony. I’ve been sending postcards to friends and family from each city (especially thank you’s to those I’ve just visited). I send one to John, my old boss and friend at AU whose son lives in Portland and with whom I used to exchange quips from Portlandia. I write: “The 90s are alive in Portland–and I LOVE it!”

The scenery from the train between Portland and Seattle is stunning. Water, trees, mountains. It’s a grey day, but serene, grounding, comforting. I’m ready to nestle in somewhere. My train rolls into Seattle’s King Station and I see my parents walking toward the platform to meet me. A surge of excitement hits me, right on time. I made it.