I’m here and it’s my 40th birthday and I need a shower. I need to update my to-do list, make a plan for the day, when all I want is a day with no plans.
I keep thinking, “Will it feel better to retreat, or to take action?”
Yesterday at work I felt like I was in a thick jungle- lost in a haircut, bushwacking my way through conversation. Every time someone asked me how I was doing I wanted to collapse, clear away the world for a moment and say,
”I’m turning forty tomorrow. I’m trying to get my house ready to sell. Lately, art and poetry, although necessary to me, are buried deep, untouchable. It’s been weeks since I’ve gotten enough time to myself. But most of all, my vow to ignore the news for a couple months is failing because it’s all crashing in, it’s unavoidable. Abortion rights are being threatened, climate change is a real problem unfolding before our eyes, there are wars and poverty and homelessness and people are being gunned down in grocery stores, in churches, in schools, and lawmakers care more about profits than protecting American people so I feel hopeless and powerless, like nothing will change.”
On Tuesday, while Benny and I were enjoying a relaxing getaway near Smith Rock, there was a mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas. I can’t look away from this.
Is it better to retreat or take action?
I’ve been happier lately, not reading the news. Life feels more manageable. But I can’t shut off. Yesterday I woke up feeling tense, ravaged. All relaxation I attained on the trip was gone. I felt overwhelmed by the clutter in the house, the lack of alone time, the weight of where the world is right now.
On the way to work I listened to Glennon Doyle’s podcast, We Can Do Hard Things. She was interviewing the founder of Moms Demand Action, an organization that is working towards gun regulation. They were talking about how we got here as a country, what we can do about it. They urged me to not turn away, to not go numb. Feel it, feel sad and sick and angry. Hope can be a concrete, productive feeling, built not on blind faith but on initiative. When I got to work I signed up for a monthly donation of $25 a month to Moms Demand Action. Did that feel better? A little.
As I set up my station I felt floaty, detached. A coworker asked how I was doing and I spilled some of it on him. He suggested I try acupuncture and Tension Tamer tea. I was inwardly outraged at his advice. One of my regular clients asked how I was doing and I cheerfully said, “Barely holding it together.”
I read a quote the other day that said, “It’s tragic how we have to disassociate in order to live our lives.” There’s such a split, the way we tamp down what’s wrong in order to go to work, be productive, do the next thing. We are so busy there’s no time to focus on the real problems and put energy towards making change.
On my lunch break I thought about how I used to be so carefree and oblivious, especially before 2016 when Trump became President. That was when the world broke open for me, and for a lot of us. When all the ugliness became very visible, when we couldn’t look away. I keep wanting things to get better so that I can go back to that blissful ignorance but I suddenly realized that that’s never going to happen. I can never go back.
And maybe that’s what growing up is. Maybe growing up is facing the world’s darkness and not looking away.
Maybe growing up is knowing when to retreat and when to take action.
Maybe growing up is waking up every morning ready to have your heart broken, again and again, but that’s okay, that what hearts were meant to do because otherwise they solidify, harden, become tough like old meat. The constant breakage keeps your heart soft, open, a conduit for change, for art, for outrage. Outrage is one of the purest forms of power.
Maybe growing up is calling the world on its bullshit and finding ways to rebel, to cultivate your own little garden of authenticity that you know to be real and good, and then as you get older, let that garden flourish and expand until it’s grown beyond its tidy plot, it’s not just yours anymore, it belongs to your neighbors as well, to your community. Creating your own beauty and brilliance so that it doesn’t become lost and small- it’s all around you, it’s all that you can see.
It was late afternoon in June of 2020, a sunny day feeling like the beginning of summer. A breeze washed over me as I walked down our street. In these months of quarantine, any time I got out of the house felt like a hard won victory. I pulled out my phone and called my old friend Scott. He answered.
“How’s your midlife crisis coming along?” he asked.
I was working on a memoir story about the time I worked as a summer camp counselor. I had some journal entries from that time but a lot of gaps that I was having to fill in from memory. It was a thrilling experiment, like piecing together a puzzle about my past. I was hungry for more- I wanted to keep digging into old journals, type them up, shape them into stories. It was the perfect escape from my life, which had become incredibly difficult since covid forced us all into lockdown. I lost my job, my Cosmetology school closed, and Mina’s school closed, which meant after six months of finally having a life independent from my daughter, I was suddenly back to being a stay at home mom, indefinitely. None of us knew how long this quarantine would last.
Writing these stories gave me a way to sink back into a time when I was free, young, and wild, with no responsibilities. I had confessed to Scott that I felt conflicted about these urges to flee into my past, knowing that it could be an unhealthy impulse, but at times it felt necessary, like studying for a test.
“Well, I’ve decided I don’t want to call it a midlife crisis,” I answered. “I’m thinking of it more like a midterm review.”
I’m turning 40 in a couple weeks. The closer I get to turning 40, the more that feels true. It’s a time in your life that begs you to pause and take stock of where you’ve been, and sketch out a rough outline for what comes next. Many people mention how turning 40 forces you to take into account your own mortality- you can no longer pretend that you will live forever.
The term “middle-aged” gets a bad rap, but it’s ultimately an optimistic term. If you’re lucky enough to make it to 40, it is a huge privilege to be able to claim, more or less confidently, “I’m halfway done.” That’s a lot of time left, really. But also not. Because your time is clearly finite, it begs you to focus. The world is not a wide open wonderland as much as it was in your 20’s. You’re more realistic about what you may or may not get around to doing.
There is a huge span between age 30 and 40. I look back to when I turned 30 and I was still a fresh-faced youngster. I had been married for three years and I was two years away from having a baby. I was still dabbling, the way you do in your 20’s, with careers and jobs and goals, not quite sure where I was headed. I was happy and naive, privileged enough to be mostly ignorant of the world’s problems. I lived in Portland, a safe bubble of liberal hipsters biking to parks and karaoke bars and coffee shops. I worked at a cheese counter and interned at an arts and culture website and took creative writing classes at PSU. Life felt promising but at the same time, kind of aimless.
I wanted my 30th birthday to feel special, so I booked two nights at a modest hotel on the coast for me and Benny. I thought it would be nice to be at the beach, not realizing that May on the Oregon coast can be pretty stormy. I pictured us lounging in the sand, soaking up the sun, but we spent much of the trip in our hotel room watching old VHS movies that we rented from the hotel front desk as it rained heavily outside. It felt a bit depressing and anticlimactic. I hadn’t previously felt upset about turning 30 but there was a moment when I was falling asleep on the night of my birthday and I felt a sudden piercing in my heart- “Oh, my twenties!!” I momentarily felt the loss, the grief of moving beyond that treasured decade.
Since turning 30 a lot has happened. Benny and I had a baby, we bought a house. I changed careers in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve gone on trips, celebrated holidays, cooked a thousand dinners, sang a thousand songs, read a thousand books, drew a thousand pictures. We’ve had park picnics and play dates, petted cats, hiked to waterfalls, swam in rivers, had arguments, had tedious discussions about schedules and taxes and finances. I wrote and self published a book. Benny and I have learned how to be parents, how to be partners, how to be grown ups.
As full and rich as life is, though, I’m ashamed to admit that for me, my 30’s has been defined by its deficiencies. Ever since becoming a mom, I’ve been so hungry- ravenous for my own time, my own space. I am constantly seeing my life through a filter of what I’m lacking. Much of my time has been spent strategizing ways to create more boundaries around myself, constructing a moat so that I can choose when the drawbridge is lowered. To people who don’t need a lot of alone time it may be hard to understand, but for me it is a constant struggle to try to get what I need so that I can be a balanced, functional person. When I look back on my 30’s what I see first and foremost is a creative, independent woman denying her own needs repeatedly, consistently, for the good of her family, and for the sake of her grown up responsibilities.
Obviously it’s not that one sided or I never would have written a book, gone to hair school, made 100 collages, taken walks alone, and done dozens of other things that I did for just me. But when I zoom out and take a long distance view of the past decade, that hunger is so pervasive and glaring that it’s hard to see around it.
But here’s what’s next- we’re selling our house, the house where we’ve lived for 7 years. I’ve never felt completely at home here, in this three story townhouse with no yard and a sad dark little patio. It was a house that made sense at the time, it was a practical choice, and in many ways it’s worked out for us. But I want to live in a house that feels right. I want to come home and feel happy to walk through the rooms, and wander through our yard and pluck wild mint leaves and put them in my mouth as I weed the garden. I want a house that feels like an extension of myself, a house that feels satisfying to clean, that is welcoming for friends and family. I want to live in a house that I’m not always trying to escape. I want to sink into my domestic roles and not resent them because I’m getting what I need in other aspects of my life. Mostly I just want to enjoy life again.
Driving home from work last night I was listening to an episode of Pete Holmes’ podcast “You Made It Weird.” He had a segment where he paid tribute to the comedian and actor Louie Anderson who had died, by replaying an excerpt of an interview he did with Louie a while back. Louie was earnest and tearful and he told Pete, “Make the best of this and stop all your bullshit, as fast as you can. Because if you don’t, you are robbing yourself of… life. And I only learned it from loss. When I just lost so many people. I wish I would’ve enjoyed that more. And I think people, they wait too long, I don’t think you plan on waiting too long. I think you just do it, because I think you think it’s endless. Time. But it’s finite. And I don’t think we understand finite, except for that very moment we lose someone who’s spiritually connected to us. So, stop all your bullshit. I say it, it’s impossible to live it. But you can try.”
Then Pete talked about when he and his wife used to say, “Let’s get married, someday. Let’s have kids someday.” But they realized how silly that was, to prolong what they wanted, to act as if they had control over time.
Louie said, “Well, why don’t you two just say, ‘we are married.’ And why don’t you just be married. You know, to be.
“I mean, I agree with you. I think that you want, you need. You desire. But you already have it all.”
You already have it all.
What if I chose to see my life through this lens, instead of the lens I had been seeing through, which was focusing on my hunger, the places in my life that were lacking. It reminded me of something a high school teacher had said once, that stuck with me- every so often, say to yourself, “This is the best it will ever be.” Every time I remember to think that a cool thing happens- it solidifies the present moment and puts it on a pedestal in a way that elevates even the flaws, the challenges, the deficiencies, the anguish of any given day and encourages me to remember, “Oh, that’s right. I am lucky to have anything at all, even the less desirable aspects of life. This messy transition, this confusion and growth and struggle IS LIFE and don’t discount it, don’t look away, let it be right there on the pedestal with everything else. You think your life will be better if this happens, if that happens- you don’t know that it will be better. Let this day, this moment, be it. Let it be the best it will ever be. (Mind you, this phrase may not work for everyone. If you’re having the shittiest day ever, thinking “this is the best it will ever be” might not be helpful. But for me, it usually works.)
So I got home, Benny was making breakfast tacos for dinner. He, Mina, and I scarfed them all down and told each other about our days. After dinner Benny put on Sharon Von Etten’s new album and started the dishes and I cleaned the cat box. Then I was about to head upstairs to start Mina’s bath so we could get that done early and watch The Great Pottery Throwdown, which is a British ceramics competition show we all love. But as I came out of the bathroom I saw Mina doing a strange, slow, goofy dance to the music. The song was plaintive and dramatic and Mina’s dancing was a combination of feeling the mournful quality of the music and also making fun of it at the same time. I had to join her, and we moved our bodies in awkward, slumpy, noodly movements and contorted our facial features into ridiculous arrangements. I thought if Benny saw us he might think we were making fun of his beloved Sharon Von Etten but he came over and started dancing too, hunching his shoulders and shuffling his feet, doing a hilarious scooping motion with the measuring cup he held in his hand.
I couldn’t help feeling like, if I hadn’t been listening to that podcast, I would’ve been in a hurry to rush upstairs and get the bath started so that we could watch the show so that I could get Mina to bed so that I could have an hour to myself before falling asleep. But in that moment I allowed myself to hold out my hands and feel the weight of all my treasures- my home, my job, my health, breath, food, music, anticipation, desire, transition, and most of all this, my loving, wild, flawed, beautiful, ridiculous family.
I Googled, “What is a nihilist” recently because it occurred to me that I might be one.
It said, ”A person who believes that life is meaningless and rejects all religious and moral principles.” I feel like there’s something in that I relate to but my personal philosophy is more like the line from the trippy animated 70’s movie called The Point (narrated by Ringo Starr)- there’s a character called the Pointed Man with bouncing arrows all over his body pointing everywhere and he says cheerily, ”A point in every direction is the same as no point at all!!” Everything is true and meaningful, therefore nothing is true and meaningful.
I think I developed this attitude early in life, which is mainly a defense mechanism against anxiety and doubt. I take a mostly lighthearted approach to decisions big or small and I don’t agonize much over what might or might not happen, or what I ”should” do in any given situation. And I’m able to do this because I really don’t think anything matters in a significant way. I don’t spend too much time wondering whether or not something is “true” or “real” because I don’t believe in an objective truth.
But lately I’ve started to ask myself, ”What do you mean ‘nothing matters’?! Of course things matter, right? It matters to you if you’re happy and healthy, that your loved ones are happy and healthy, you care about the state of the planet, you care about your job and your hair and if the house is clean and that you have the time and freedom to do the things you love… There’s so much that matters.” But really what I think it is, is that, even if things matter to me, it doesn’t really matter because I don’t matter.
And I don’t mean this in a degrading, low self-esteem kind of way, because honestly I think pretty highly of myself. I mean it in a look-up-at-the-infinite-stars kind of way. I’m sure we’ve all had this feeling before. And it can be a scary feeling but I find it usually very comforting and freeing. It’s a perspective that allows me to enjoy my life without too much over analyzing. So far my philosophy has been, “Act as if things matter, while at the same time understanding that they don’t.”
But the other day I was listening to Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, where he was interviewing Chan Marshall, AKA Cat Power. Something she said struck me- she was talking about her struggles with depression and anxiety and that’s mainly what got her into music, that she could sit down with her guitar and sing and it was something real to cling to. I don’t know why that hit me so hard but it made me think, ”Right, of course. Music is real. Music matters. And if music matters, then many other things must matter as well.”
I’m wondering if, convenient as it may be, this perspective of mine might be wearing on me- this constant dichotomy of loving something and at the same time believing in its meaninglessness. I remember something my eccentric boss once said to me when I was working at a restaurant: “If you’re going to love something ironically, you should just go ahead and love it genuinely because, why not. You’re already putting energy into loving it; just love it.” Sometimes I feel exhausted by this internal split where my heart cares about something but my head says, ”That thing you love is essentially dust, empty space, a hologram. A speck in the cosmos.” My head can be such a downer.
I watched this movie yesterday, called Palm Springs- not a great title, but it’s basically an updated version of the Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day. A guy is trapped in a time loop where he’s reliving the same day over and over, but only he is aware that it’s the same day. It’s such a great movie that I was skeptical of this Palm Springs version but it was actually quite good. In both movies I feel like they are using this plot device as a metaphor for the drudgery and repetitiveness of daily life and the main characters in each story go through a natural progression of what you might expect in such a scenario. Shock, confusion, denial, then a dawning realization of, “Wait, I can do anything.” After a lot of drugs, drinking, reckless and ridiculous behavior, comes a new low complete with repeated unsuccessful attempts at suicide.
In the Groundhog Day version, you eventually see Bill Murray’s character experience a complete transformation from arrogant asshole to lovable, considerate member of the community. In Palm Springs, Andy Samberg’s character also undergoes a change, with the help of Cristin Milioti’s character- he learns how to care. And he learns how to care despite the fact that he is living in a time loop, which is truly as meaningless as you can get. He lets himself want, he lets himself love, and he stops pretending not to care.
You may have heard the Rilke quote, “Let everything happen to you.” I looked up the full poem recently and it’s so good, and I’m adopting it as my poem/mantra whenever I start to feel myself detaching.
Well, what do you know, I wrote a book! Believe it or not, this was not my intention back in the summer of last year when I started putting these memoir stories together. But once I got started, the momentum kept building until I eventually had eight stories and an introduction written. And then I thought, why not go ahead and self publish it?
So, here it is! You can buy a paperback copy or ebook from Amazon. I have to say, it turned out well. It’s a good book. I think you’ll like it.
“Is she gonna say it?” I wondered out loud as we passed the Leaving Oregon sign posted halfway on the bridge over the Columbia River.
“Is who gonna say what?” Asked Benny from the passenger seat. From the backseat I heard my mom and Mina ooing and aweing about the river. The water sparkled in the morning light and a few boats dotted its surface. It was still early- we had managed to leave at 8:30 am, only half an hour later than our goal, after the obligatory bickering between Benny and I about the process of loading up the Subaru.
“Welcome to Washington,” said the robotic female voice of Google Maps, briefly interrupting the twanging banjo solo of a song by The Steeldrivers.
“There it is!” I rejoiced.
“Oh, you knew she was gonna say that,” said Benny, laughing.
Although the state line is only a ten minute drive from our house, we rarely cross over into Washington. This time we weren’t stopping at Lewisville State Park where we went swimming this summer, and we weren’t even aiming for Seattle as a destination. We were headed to a place an hour and a half North of Seattle- a little peninsula in the San Juan Island area off of Washington called Samish Island. We were headed to Camp Kirby.
Back in the spring of this year I saw a post by Camp Kirby, who I started following on Facebook when I put together the Venus de Milo story. They announced that they would be open for Family Camp over Memorial Weekend and Labor Day Weekend. That meant that we could stay at Camp Kirby if we wanted to, even though we weren’t staff or campers. I was thrilled and immediately booked a cabin for Labor Day weekend. (Unfortunately all the tree house cabins had already been booked.) So here we were, loaded up and headed North, to a place I hadn’t been to in 19 years- a place I thought I would never see again.
Half an hour after Seattle we drove past Everett, and I kept taking quick glances out the side window to see if I could spot anything recognizable. I remembered all the walking I did through the town, trying to avoid spending too much time at the cramped apartment with Scott’s family. I remembered fondly the library, the sunny parks, the natural food store where Scott worked.
It was a relief to divert from the 5 North after almost five hours and cruise along the winding, solitary highway through farmlands, getting closer and closer to the water. We saw fields of corn and cabbages, big horned steers, farmhouses and little markets. One stretch of road was a popular parking spot for fisherfolk, and we saw many people in big rubber overalls and floppy hats, carrying poles and nets. “Share the road,” said one sign with a picture of a tractor.
We turned off the highway onto a residential road, and eventually caught sight of the shining expanse of the bay through a line of trees. A little further and we came to the narrowest part of the peninsula where you can see water on both sides. A left, a right, and then another right, and there was the wooden Camp Kirby sign on the top of the hill.
As we descended the hill we saw the archery range on our right, and beside that a new rock climbing wall that wasn’t there when I had been there last. We kept creeping along the narrow dirt road and the treehouses came into view on our left, looking pretty much the same except for some new wooden steps up to the cabins to replace the ladders. Then down the steepest part of the hill into the main area of camp- the dining hall on the left, the basketball court, the big totem pole by the flagpole, and the various cabins scattered around the area.
We found Sandpiper, our cabin, which was located between Tayito, the counselor’s cabin, and Woodpecker, the cute little A frame. Our cabin was pretty basic, but it did have electricity and our own bathroom and the pads on the bunk beds were fairly comfortable. As soon as we parked and got out of the car it started to rain in big, haphazard drops. Mina fled to the safety of the cabin while the rest of us unloaded the gear.
We were visited by Kit Kat, the camp director, and she gave us a rundown of things and asked if we needed to buy anything. We needed propane and ice, so I followed her down to the little store. After buying the propane we made a stop at the Dining Hall where the ice was stored. It looked exactly the same, and even smelled the same- that smell of an old building, years of food cooked in huge batches, mop water, and cleaning supplies.
“What year did you work here?” She asked. I had mentioned that I had been a counselor here a long time ago.
“2002,” I replied.
“Did you make a wall plaque?” She wondered, peering up at the beams where there were painted signs posted.
“I don’t remember…” I said. “Oh wait, here it is!” It was a round board painted with a sunset and included the names, both camp and legal names, of all the staff that year. Many of the people I had little memory of, but I lingered on the names of Water Rat, Feika, Maxx, Turbo, Luna, and of course Milo. For some reason it gave me comfort to know it was there, proof that I had made my mark on the place.
I headed back to the cabin with my supplies. Mom, Mina, and Benny were getting settled in. After getting unpacked, the first thing I wanted to do was head out to The Point. It had stopped raining but it was still a bit cold and windy so Mina wasn’t up for an adventure yet and Benny had forgotten to bring a jacket so just Mom and I ventured out there.
We walked along the gravel road that leads out there, passing Herman’s Hut, the last building before you get to the water. I remembered that that’s where Brian/Water Rat had stayed that summer. After that the finger of land gets narrower and closer to the water level until, if you go out far enough, you can stand on the very tip with water all around you. The ground is covered with an incredible variety of gorgeous little stones- spotted, striped, and plain- of all different colors. And shells everywhere- mostly big clam shells and some spiral ones too, a lot of them covered in little white barnacles. Seaweed and sea grass were clumped up in big piles from high tide and driftwood was strewn about everywhere. One big log I thought I recognized from when I was there before. Mom was delighted by all the shells and started collecting a few.
I kept looking around, trying to reconcile the fact that I was here in this place that, for many years, existed for me only in my mind. I kept flip flopping between feeling like it was normal to be here, and feeling like it was totally surreal and strange, like walking around in a memory. I couldn’t help feeling like it wasn’t as beautiful as I remembered, but I figured that was due to the fact that it was cloudy, making everything look flat and gray.
“It’s a lot more stunning out here when it’s sunny,” I told Mom, feeling like I was almost apologizing for the view.
“It’s a lot more sunny here when it’s sunny?” She asked, with a little smirk on her face.
I laughed. “No- it’s more stunning when it’s sunny,” I repeated. I remembered the sunsets out there were just otherworldly, beauty magnified by the flat mirror of the water, the rounded islands adding the perfect composition. I hoped tomorrow would be clear enough to allow for a nice sunset.
Out in front of the Dining Hall were a couple of ping pong tables and foosball and we had fun playing those. Mom was hilarious at foosball because she’d never played it much before and made a lot of wild noises and ridiculous moves.
In the evening I whipped up a nice fire in the fire pit, feeling pretty smug about my fire building skills. (Although I did cheat a little with a fire starter “tumbleweed”.) I thought about how Camp Kirby was where I really got good at building fires, where I developed the identity of “good fire builder.” It was one of the more useful skills I left the summer with.
For dinner we made a “shrimp boil” by filling foil packets with shrimp, andouille sausages, potatoes, and little ears of corn, and plopping them on the coals. We had a bit of a challenge pulling them out when they were done, because of the deep fire pit. We ended up hoisting them out with a shovel, puncturing one of the foil packets and losing a few potatoes in the process. And one of the packets had overcooked, revealing a pile of incinerated chunks- but overall, a pretty good dinner.
After dinner we got in our pajamas and played Go Fish in the cabin, listening to the cozy sound of wind and rain on the roof. Later I read to Mina from The Hobbit as we snuggled up on one of the top bunks. She fell asleep while I was reading, and I slowly climbed down into the bed under her and read from a book of stories called Tales From Nowhere– real travel stories from people who found themselves in remote, isolated places. I kept thinking my summer in Coldfoot would fit in perfectly, and wondered how I would condense it down into a much shorter story.
I slept deeply that night, and wasn’t quite ready to wake up when Mina climbed down and announced, “Good morning, Mom!” I groggily got out of bed and got her a bowl of Panda Puffs with milk which she ate in the cabin. I found the French press and bag of coffee, mugs, kettle, and lighter, and went outside to the picnic table to make coffee. The storm had passed- the ground and cars were wet but it was a nice day, partly cloudy with no wind. As I waited for water to boil Benny and Mina emerged, ready to go explore the beach. I wanted to go with them but stayed behind to make coffee, mostly just glad that Mina was up for some adventuring. Sometimes she can be stubbornly insistent about just holing up somewhere cozy and not going out. (That’s partly why I wanted to read her The Hobbit- I thought she’d be able to relate to Bilbo and his resistance to adventure.)
When the coffee was ready I handed a mug to Mom who was in the cabin writing in her journal. She gasped and said, “I love you!!” As she reached for the mug with both hands. “I mean, I loved you before too.”
I picked up the other two mugs and went after Benny and Mina, thinking it would be nice to drink the coffee out at The Point. We spent a good hour out there, inspecting shells and rocks and just walking around. Benny was awestruck by a crane that was fishing in the shallow part of the water, surrounded by seagulls, and Mina gathered more treasures than she could carry. After a while we went back to the cabin and cooked up some egg, cheese, and sausage burritos, then the three of them went to play more ping pong while I got dressed and did some journal writing.
I wrote, “I’m not sure if I feel more connected to my past self here or farther away from her. Maybe more connected, actually. Like the land is a direct tie between us, without the intervening space and time. Like I could run into her here.”
It was true- I found that when I was alone for a few minutes, away from my family, I could easily trick myself into believing it was 2002. The camp looked almost exactly the same as it was 19 years ago. I kept seeing the ghosts of kids lining up outside the Dining Hall, or marching up the hill arm in arm back up to the treehouses. Out of the corner of my eye I could almost see my 20 year old self, lugging a bag of laundry into the laundry room, balancing on a log by the water, emerging from Tayito with a stack of letters. She seemed like a physical presence, not just a wisp of memory smoke.
I wrote about half a page before they returned from ping pong. After hanging out at the cabin a while we packed some snacks and headed up the hill to explore the forest trails. I was delighted when we arrived at Chapel- I had almost forgotten about it although it had been one of my favorite spots in camp. It looked the same, of course- rows of log benches arranged in a half circle facing a breathtaking view through the trees of the bay and land across the water. Mina found an injured moth and made a little twig house for it, while we sat and snacked on apples and I drew the scene in my journal. Before we left I remembered the Chapel ritual of wishing on a rock, so I found a rock and we sat side by side, each holding the rock for a moment to make our wish, then Benny tossed it over the railing to the water below.
“I have too many things to wish for,” I said, thinking of all the problems in our lives and the catastrophes of the world. But I wished for the first thing that came into my head which was, “I wish to be outside in the morning more often.” Which is kind of a funny wish but I’ve found that if I can get outside early it just makes for a better day, and in turn, a better life. It connects me to mindfulness and gratitude.
After a lunch of crackers, salami, and cheese by the water I was feeling strangely lethargic. I’d had a mild headache since we left Portland and it seemed to be getting worse. It was still cloudy and the air was heavy with moisture. It felt late in the day but when I checked the time it was only 12:30. “What are we going to do the rest of the day?” I wondered. We had already done the two things I was looking forward to- hanging out by the water and hiking the forest trails. I was also feeling like I desperately needed some alone time- I found that I was getting cranky around my family, tired of talking and interacting and making decisions together in a group.
“When I was a counselor I thought a two hour break was nothing,” I thought grumpily. “What I wouldn’t give for just one uninterrupted hour.”
“I’m going to go take a nap,” I announced, leaving the three of them on the beach.
Mom and Mina ended up playing ping pong and Benny came back to the cabin to nap also. I felt better after the nap but we were still sort of just aimlessly wandering around, not sure what to do. There were other families nearby playing volleyball, going kayaking, biking around. Part of me wanted to make friends with them, wanted Mina to find some other kids to play with. But I also just felt tired and sort of vacant. I realized that, although I planned this as a family getaway, my main reason for coming here was some kind of self reckoning, a hope of gaining a bit of closure with my past. I wanted to have a moment with my past self- not a goodbye exactly, but more of a “Hey- thanks for everything you’ve done for me. Now maybe can you give me some space and let me live my own life?” But I wasn’t sure how to invoke her or create that moment. I knew she wouldn’t approach me if I was around my family, but at the end of the day I still hadn’t given myself enough time alone to fully allow for her presence.
That evening after cooking pizza sandwiches over the fire in our pie pans we walked out to the West facing beach for the sunset. The sky was somewhat clear but a big chunk of cloud was wedged between two islands, blocking the sun’s final descent. The sun itself wasn’t so spectacular but the clouds themselves were lovely, smeared across the sky in rippled patterns reminding me of a salmon filet, pale blue and lavender, wispy white and hints of pink. After the sun had set, the low hung clouds burned like embers, a sizzling magenta glow.
Even after my nap, I was spent. I felt sedated, drained by the sun even though it had been overcast most of the day. I tried to write in my journal before bed and my hand felt stiff and heavy, laboring over the forming of words. I wondered if I was experiencing some kind of emotional fatigue, the result of coming to terms with my present overlapping my past. I curled up in bed early, before 9:00 even, reading my book. I begged Benny to do book time with Mina because I couldn’t imagine getting out of bed to climb up the ladder and reading aloud for half an hour. I fell asleep listening to Benny read about swords and goblins, and Bilbo lost in the damp darkness of caves.
In the morning I woke up fresh and alert, with new resolve. I would find some time to be alone this morning, after breakfast and before our archery lesson at 10:00 am. So after instant oatmeal, coffee, and a shower, I announced I would be taking a solo walk and would be gone 30-40 minutes. I encountered no opposition from the group.
I know I have to go out to The Point. We’ve spent a lot of time out there on this visit but this time will be different. I will be alone. It’s sunnier than yesterday- the sun warms the left half of me as I walk along the gravel, lifting my hand to wave to a man on the porch of Herman’s Hut. As I walk along I see a man and his daughter on the beach to my right. I think it would be nice to walk that way but I don’t want to risk having a conversation with anyone, so I continue on down the middle. On my left are two women walking together in the distance, causing seagulls to flap leisurely away from their fishing spot for a moment. The tide is very low, I can tell by the long expanse of exposed mud and seaweed between the shore and the water. Because the tide is so low, the tip of The Point extends much farther out. I keep walking, my boots crunching the barnacle covered stones. I hope I’m not hurting the barnacles. The tip of the land is covered in white seagulls, all loitering there just looking around. I don’t feel compelled to disturb them so I stop before I get too close to them, then turn around to head back.
There’s that view that feels so achingly familiar. This is the way I most often remember this place- the widening strip of land with the water on either side, the speckling of half-hidden cabins and the dark green background of the tree covered hill. As I slowly walk back, I see someone coming towards me in a direct path. Even before she is close enough to recognize, I know who it is. She’s wearing the dark blue, green, and yellow Raffe ski jacket that I bought at that vintage store in Chico. I wore it so often I got sick to death of it and ended up leaving it in Brian’s truck when he dropped me off at the Greyhound station in Portland. I’ve thought of that jacket many times since then, wishing I hadn’t given it up so impulsively.
When she gets near enough to see her face I stop. My whole body tenses up and my face crumples, hot tears sliding fast down my cheeks. Her expression is soft, loving, and a little curious. She comes even closer, stopping in front of me.
It’s nice to be eye to eye with someone, I think, as I look her over- her unlined face, her un-grayed hair. My hair is about as long as hers, actually, though mine’s more of a mullet. Her slightly askew glasses- she needs to get new ones. Her cheeks and nose are pink with sunburn. I know she’s looking me over too, seeing how well I’ve fared over the last 19 years, reading between the lines of my wrinkles.
“Hey. You ok?” She asks. Her face blurs as my eyes keep welling up with tears, and I know that I’ll have a hard time stopping, especially with her looking at me with such love and concern. I feel a little embarrassed, like I’m supposed to be the one who has it together, who has the answers. I’m supposed to be helping her out, right? I should have some advice for her, something she can think back on during hard times. But at the moment I have nothing. I’m just so glad to see her, but I also don’t want her to know that her future self is so broken and unstable that she can’t withstand an encounter like this. I’m worried that she’ll think that there’s some upcoming tragedy to worry about.
I sniffle, wipe some tears away. “Yeah. I’m ok. Don’t get me wrong, everything’s fine. Life is fine. I just…” I search for the right words. “I mean, I guess I’m just struggling with getting older. I want to maintain my sense of freedom and adventure, you know? I want to stay wild and alive but it’s hard- it’s a constant battle.”
She looks at me wonderingly, like she’s not sure what I mean.
I try again. “When you’re younger, staying alive is like breathing- it’s just something you are, you do it without thinking. When you’re older it feels more like drowning, like barely staying above water. Life becomes less about enjoyment and more about survival. It’s exhausting!” I break down, sobbing this time, not even able to control the flow of tears. I cover my face with my hand, trying to hide. She shouldn’t see me like this.
I feel her step even closer, put her arms around me. I feel the heat of her cheek against my damp, cool one. Our bodies fit together perfectly, like no embrace I’ve ever felt before. I breathe in her musky, earthy scent. Our hair mingles together, black curls around black curls.
“It’s okay,” she tells me soothingly. I feel her breath on my ear. “It’s going to be okay.” There’s no way she could know this- how can she say it with such reassuring confidence? And yet somehow I believe her. For some reason she seems to know things I don’t, or maybe I just don’t remember. I wish I could help her too, like she’s helping me, but she doesn’t seem to need it. Even if I did have advice for her, it wouldn’t do her any good. She’s going to learn just the way I did- through experience.
“I think you’ve forgotten,” she says. “It’s not so easy for me, either. Staying alive, I mean.”
She’s right- I had forgotten. It’s always been a struggle, a fight to keep my head above water. My whole life has been lived in pursuit of authenticity, in the hopes of living a true, genuine, fully lived life. The nature of the obstacles changes, but they’re always there.
My crying subsides and I’m able to take a deep, slow breath. She takes one too, then pulls away, looking at me. “I have to go,” she says with a soft smile. “My break is almost over.”
I nod, wiping away tears. “Ok. Good luck with those kids.”
She grins and winces, gives a little shrug. “Thanks.” She puts her hands in her pockets and turns, starts walking back. As I watch her form get smaller and smaller I again take in the composition of the scene, the way it’s split into three- water, land, water. It’s like the solid, grounded present flanked by the fluid, shimmery past and future. It seems like separate elements until you turn and realize it’s all connected- the past and future flow into each other with the present rooted in between, a stable place to rest your feet. The past is bright with morning sun; the future is subdued and layered with silhouettes of islands, waiting to receive the sun as it makes its way across.
As I walk back to the cabin I think, “I don’t want to be a bitter old woman, mourning my lost youth. I want to be someone that my younger self would be proud of. I’m almost 40- it’s a good time to restart. It’s fine that I’ve been reliving these younger years, but it’s time to move on, make some new stories. I’m still young- I’ve got some adventure left in me somewhere.”
I get back to the cabin just in time to gather everyone and march up the hill to the archery range. The archery instructor gives us all a quick lesson and then we each choose a bow and step up to the firing line. I hold the bow out straight in front of me, notch the arrow and pull back on the bowstring. I feel strong and steady, enjoying the way that this pose requires your shoulders to open, exposing your heart as the muscles in your arms go taut with effort and focus. I’m surprised that my first few arrows make it to the target at all, since it’s been 19 years since I held a bow in my hands. I do even better on my second round, although my arm that holds the bow is getting tired.
Finally on my last one, I give it everything I’ve got. I hold my body still and strong, breathe in as I pull back on the string as far as I can, aim- and then breathe out as I let go, watching the arrow sail straight and sure, glowing for just a moment in the sun, to the bullseye.
A year ago I did an ambitious thing- I put together a memoir story based on the time I worked at a summer camp in Washington when I was 20 years old (an edited version of which I shared here on the blog: Venus de Milo). I did it as kind of an experiment, to try my hand at memoir using mostly journals from that time and filling in the gaps with memory and recreated dialogue.
It felt good. Later, I tried another one about the time I took a semester off from college and traveled across the country. It was addicting- next I wrote about my summer working at a truck stop in Alaska. I realized that, without intending to, I was assembling a canon of adventure tales- a written record of my wildest experiences. I put a story together about my summer working in Yosemite. After that I knew I had two left: both set in Baja- one backpacking trip and one bicycling trip.
The other day I finished my last story. I keep thinking I want to put them all together in one document- each story is fairly long so I think altogether they would make a decent sized book. I want to share it with people but deep down I know it needs to be printed on actual paper in tangible book form, not read on a screen. So, if anyone has tips on self publishing let me know.
Meanwhile I’ve been working on an introduction:
When my daughter was first born she wasn’t much of a sleeper. I was up a lot those first nights, trying to nurse her back to sleep when she woke up every hour or so. I hadn’t perfected the side-nurse yet which is great for nursing while still mostly asleep so when she cried in the night I would blearily wake up to turn on a small light, sit up in bed and arrange her on a nursing pillow for a long session of breastfeeding.
I wasn’t on my phone much in those days and I didn’t have a book I was into (I actually bought “Moby Dick” to read while I was nursing, way overestimating my mental capacity at the time) so I basically just stared at the wall for hours on end, thinking about my life. I wasn’t thinking about my life in its entirety- the distant past or the recent past, or the future. I was thinking about my wild years- my life from age 18 to 23- a time period that, as a 32 year old, felt somewhat distant but not completely inaccessible. Until having a child. Becoming a mom seemed to instantaneously shut and lock that wild self away like a precious museum specimen- look, but don’t touch.
The blank white wall in front of me was like a screen onto which another life was being projected. I saw myself jumping into the Arctic Ocean with a bunch of friends, dancing the night away at Duffy’s bar, bicycling down Baja, strutting across the desert of Burning Man in a giant petticoat and knee high boots, high on ecstasy. Because that self felt so inaccessible I started to envy her, idolize her, grieve her loss. But I realized that I had traded that identity in for a new one, this role of a mother. I was growing up; I couldn’t be that wild girl forever.
But something about the past keeps pulling me back. I’ve developed a habit of rooting through the storage closet looking for my boxes of journals- I have kept a journal since before I could actually write- and pulling out one or two from that magical era (1998-2005). The writing from that time is dense, detailed, scrawling, surreal, interrupted by sketches and collages, smeared by the rain, crossed out, underlined, loose, breathless, showy, tender, mournful, thirsty. I like the person I was then; I often feel that that girl was the truest form of all my versions. I miss her. I want her back. I refuse to accept that she’s gone forever. I keep wondering if I can unfreeze her from her state of suspended animation- bring her back from the dead using these journals as a time machine.
Yes, sometimes it feels unhealthy- living in the past as a form of escapism. But the thing is, I don’t want to just live in the past; I want to bring some elements of the past into the present and the future. I want to keep her close so that we can learn from each other, trade secrets. The older I get the more important it seems to dig deep into those experiences and pull out the gold, brush it off and keep it in my pocket for whenever I might need it. I don’t want to lose the lessons I learned, and I don’t want to lose that urgency to keep exploring and challenging myself. I feel like, even though that girl is in the past, she’s ahead of me on the trail, leaving little signs and markers to let me know I’m headed the right way. I guess I think of her as my muse, my guide. She didn’t have it all figured out of course, and she made all kinds of mistakes I would never make now, but she had a fiery, independent spirit and her heart was in the right place. She was committed to curiosity, to art, to love, to finding out what it means to be human in this world at this time.
When I tell people now about the things I did in my 20’s they are often amazed and impressed, but at the time I didn’t think of myself as particularly adventurous. In Chico I was surrounded by an incredible community of artists and travelers and I often felt like I was just struggling to keep up. In my group of friends it wasn’t unusual to go on a two week backpacking trip, or bike across Australia performing plays, or go rafting in the Grand Canyon, or live on a platform built in a tree to protest logging, or do hallucinatory peyote rituals in a Mexican desert. Compared to people around me I often felt somewhat young and inexperienced, bumbling through attempts at similar adventures. Until recently I looked back on this time with a bit of embarrassment and a sense of failure, like I was just getting my bearings and warming up to the upcoming real adventures, which never happened.
But what ended up happening is something I never expected- I fell in love, settled down, had a kid. I mostly lost my hunger for adventure; I domesticated myself and I felt okay about that. It wasn’t until becoming a mom that I started really looking back with yearning, wondering if maybe my wild years aren’t just behind me, but maybe ahead of me as well.
I’ve been wanting to get these stories together for a long time- as a way of getting them out of my system by diving back in fully, reliving them, to see if they have new things to teach me. I want to keep that past self alive by sharing these stories. I feel like if more people know about her- live what she lived- she can keep exploring, and keep showing me the way.
Last night I was closing up shop with my coworker Darren at Bishops, the hair salon where I’ve been working for six months. We were chatting a bit, and he was telling me what a great job I’m doing and how I should feel free to ask him for help whenever I need it. Darren’s been a great resource for me in my new career, and I’ve learned a lot just by watching him cut hair. Then, seemingly out of nowhere he said, “Hey, I’ve actually never directly asked you what your pronouns are.”
Asking for someone’s pronouns is becoming more and more commonplace, and it’s a practice I’m on board with. I’ve come to realize over the last few years, as more and more of my friends come out as trans or nonbinary, that you really can’t know someone’s gender until they tell you how they identify. I love that idea, that you can’t assume to know a person’s gender by their outward appearance, and until you know, it’s best to refer to that person by the gender neutral pronoun “they.” Our family is friends with another family with two kids and the parents noticed that their younger child didn’t seem to be exhibiting any specific male or female characteristics so they decided to refer to that child as “they” until they were able to choose for themselves, the label they felt comfortable with.
How I answered Darren was this: “I like the term nonbinary because I like the fluidity of it, but I’m not sure if that’s the term I want to use for myself. I feel like I’ve fought so hard to be comfortable with being female.” After a moment I said, “I guess that’s not a very good answer.” A couple years ago at a Christmas party someone casually asked me, “What are your pronouns?” I froze for a second then said, “she/her, as far as I know.”
I’ve wondered, what is so hard for me about that question? Why can’t I clearly assert that I’m a woman? What is all this fumbling about? And I think what it is is that I feel like I already went through my gender reevaluation back in my teen years. When I was 15, 16, 17, I didn’t feel like a girl. I had a feminine body for sure- curvy, with hips and breasts much larger than I was comfortable with. I got a lot of unwanted attention for my breasts. I also had cropped hair and thick body hair and wore boyish clothes most of the time. I was envious of boys- their lean, muscled bodies, the way they could wear their facial hair without shame, the way they weren’t expected to do themselves up with makeup. I suffered from acne and hated the time I spent in the bathroom, cleansing and exfoliating and covering up my skin with products, not to mention all the time spent shaving, plucking, and primping. I was attracted to boys but I also wanted to be the boys I was attracted to. All my heroes were men. Honestly I was a little embarrassed for women and didn’t like being associated with them. I decided for a while that I was a gay boy. I didn’t know anyone who was transgender at the time, in my world or even on TV. Actually I knew of one transgender person, Kate Bornstein, who I learned about from reading her memoir, “Gender Outlaw” (borrowed from my wild, artist mother). This was in the mid 90’s. I think if I had known of the term nonbinary at the time I would’ve been thrilled and latched onto it like a life raft.
But what ended up happening was when I was 18 I was able to get a breast reduction. I went from a DDD to a C cup and felt truly liberated. Suddenly my gender crisis just didn’t seem relevant anymore. Instead of feeling like a gay boy I felt more like a boyish girl. Funny that the decrease in cup size helped me feel more like a girl but it was really that I wasn’t resisting femininity so hard anymore. It felt easier to be a girl, not such a burden. And that was the beginning of not only feeling ok about being female, but really sinking into it, embracing it with a fierce pride. In college I ended up spending a lot of my time with women because even though I have remained consistently attracted to men, most of my best friends are lesbians- it must be something about their blend of masculine and feminine that I relate to and feel comfortable around.
Even now, when filling out a new patient form for a doctor’s office or routine survey, I feel good about marking the female box, even if there’s a nonbinary option. And with that always comes a relief, that I identify with the gender that I was born with. I’m aware of what a privilege that is.
Ok but this nonbinary thing is still appealing to me. Because the truth is, no matter how proudly I can state “I am woman!!!” There’s a part of me that’s like, “Yes, and also I’m still such a flaming gay dude.” And I’m also neither of those things. But since I’ve already had my gender exploration I don’t particularly care much what my label is. I’m aware that I tend to be dudelier than most women, but I also understand that the term “woman” is a big enough category to include dudely women like me.
I think when someone inquires about my pronouns I’m hesitant to say “she/her” and leave it at that because that makes it sound like I haven’t done my homework and I’m just going the lazy route, taking what I’ve been given. I want them to know I’ve given it some serious thought, that I’ve considered other options and decided that women rock and I’m honored to share their title. But I also wonder if there’s a part of me that’s afraid to make the leap from “she” to “they”, not wanting to be dramatic or make people around me uncomfortable.
Really I would love it if we could all just be nonbinary- just people, without needing to specify further. If we could make choices about our hairstyle, wardrobe, career, body language, hobbies, based on our desires and not so influenced by how our gender is supposed to act and look. Maybe that’s why I like being female. I like to show that I can be a woman who’s not necessarily conforming to all the female stereotypes. I can choose what being a woman means to me.
So I’ve been in the process of going through my journals from the last few years and pulling out all the good stuff. Sometimes it’s just a line or two that stands out in a several page entry; sometimes it’s a few paragraphs. I’m thinking about making a zine of these, formatting them like poems or very short stories. I like how they look with the dates omitted. Thought I’d share a few now on the blog.
What was the best moment today? Maybe now, but… before this, what? It was a tiring day, satisfying, warm- I liked waking up, I’d slept well. I enjoyed my slushee margarita after work, but the best? Maybe it was just walking to the curb to get the trash canisters- about 8 pm but the air was still warm, body temperature. I had on a knee length flowy pink skirt so the sensation of warm air and skirt blowing around my legs was a loose, sensual, rare feeling. The sky was almost an iridescent blue, and the moon silvery and seemingly brighter than it should have been with the sky still so light around it. A lopsided moon, maybe two thirds full, flattened on one side. And then grabbing the canisters, one in each hand and rolling them easily and gracefully across the parking lot, a familiar and practiced movement from my long ago recycling job, the resonant rumble echoing out like the steady travel of thunder.
Did the dishes. Scrubbed the coffee pot. Re-seasoned the cast irons. The dishwasher gurgles, the dryer churns. I was about to head upstairs, then thought:
“I could write in my journal now, if I wanted. On the couch. With Mina asleep, mom and Benny upstairs. I could do this thing, alone, that I used to do almost daily for years.”
I’m noticing changes in myself. I see pictures of myself two, three years ago and I look livelier and more rested then I do now but I couldn’t have been. The way I am with Mina is changing. When she was a baby and toddler I was so open, emotional, melted, pure. Now I am more stern with her, a bit hardened. Sometimes I talk to her a bit sarcastically, or with some of the attitude she’s giving me. I’m more calculating, less coddling.
I see a fierceness in her sometimes, a glaring focus, her ember eyes burning, eyebrows a straight dark line. Sometimes I can’t tell what she’s thinking- she has an inner life that’s growing stronger, she’s becoming more independent. Mostly I’m glad for this. I’m glad for all the ways she’s separate from me, becoming her own person. As separate as she becomes I can’t imagine never knowing her the way I do- an intuitive understanding that comes from knowing myself. But I know also that there will be times that I think I understand her but I won’t. She will do things that I would never do.
Did I ever write about that dream I had?
I was in an antique shop and was attracted to a box,
a small shallow wooden box with a window in the lid, you could see inside of it
and it made a picture, overlapping layers of muted colors.
It was $25 and I wanted it but couldn’t justify the purchase to myself,
it wasn’t practical.
But finally I decided, “Beauty is a necessity.”
And I bought it, picturing it sitting on a special shelf I would make to display it. And maybe it would be the start of a new kind of life for me, allowing beauty
to take the forefront of my existence-
a way of valuing aesthetics as much as practicality if not more;
a way of living for the sake of art.
The car I’m borrowing for a few days has a tape player. This morning I grabbed a few mix tapes from the box as I rushed out on my way to school. Even though they are from the 90’s, so long ago that that decade has made a comeback, I didn’t expect to have any problems with the tapes. But when I slid one in (that satisfying moment when your gentle push is replaced by a gentle tug) the sound coming out was slogged, demonic, warped, clattery, unrecognizable- until finally a voice emerged, the gravelly growl of Tom Waits singing Kerouac lyrics, followed by Kerouac himself singing Bing Crosby, a brief interlude by the Presidents of the United States of America, continuing into Talking Heads’, “This Must Be The Place”- a song that has now become popular but back then I felt like the only one who knew what a good song it was. It played slowly with a heavy warble. I sang along, thinking my voice sounded ripe and raspy, blending in nicely with David Byrne’s, remembering a time when I was a young, fierce girl, holding dear my three heroes: Tom, Jack, David.
Last night we went out to collect some candy. Some of the streets we walked were very dark and no place for children. The 205 rushed by on the other side of the concrete wall. How did we end up here? But the moon was perfect, classic-a white gold crescent against a deep violet sky, glowing, knowing. Venus, a beauty mark. Look at the moon! We kept saying to the kids. Did they look?
I want to tell you this new fear I have-a fear of the dark, of night. I noticed it during those short days when the darkness creeps in quietly and suddenly drops you into a black velvet bag. When I’m walking to work from my car for an evening shift or when I wake up early and it’s inky black outside- It’s not a fear of what could be lurking in the dark, of things unseen. It’s a fear of Nothing. When it’s night I can so easily picture our tender planet half dark, and me- impossible and minuscule, on that shadowed side, staring out into the nothingness of space. Night reminds me that I live on a planet, that the planet is in trouble and that it’s suspended within the frigid unknowable universe.
Walking in the foggy midday at the Lone Fir Cemetery. I have other things to do but I miss walking. I want to feel my body create its own warmth. I want to see my breath. I stop at the oldest tombstones, trying to read them- the worn, mossy rock carved with facts. Mother, Father, Beloved Son. Aged 46 years. Aged 28 years. The big monument to Storie. The crumbling mausoleum. The tombstone cast to resemble a craggy stump. A stuffed lion by a teenage boy’s grave. A candy bar resting by another. Leaping squirrels, plunging and darting through the branches. I try to observe my thoughts. I realize that any thoughts you have while walking through a graveyard will not be original. All will be cliche observations of mortality, time, cycles. I thought of all those bodies under the ground. I thought of my own death. I thought of the eventual death of those I love. I wondered about all these stories around me, all those lives with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I felt my own vibrant life force. My hands became warm enough to pull out of my pockets and swing alongside my body. The rhythmic movement of feet, legs, hips, arms. I left and walked back out into the chaos of the living.
I dreamt of visiting Sharon Olds at her lovely house, a creamy gold mansion with an incredible bathtub. I read one of her poems and it’s stunning, soothing, nourishing. I think about how she has been rewarded for her work as a poet, the world sees her, honors her. It is possible to be a wealthy poet. This dream shows what is valuable to me right now- the richness of words, the value of poetry, of living poetically. The value of being the kind of person and living the kind of life to be able to write like that.
My body can tell you about itself:
I am a stiff bridge in a wooden playground, low thump thump, shaking chains. I am wind- cold, tearing tiny flowers off of thorny branches. I am an empty boat.
I am dirt- wet, wormy, rich, waiting.
My stomach is a soft stone, like day old bread, something hard surrounded by something soft. A brick inside a pillow.
My wrists and ankles are spindly branches, cracking and twisting in the storm.
My shoulders are a desert mesa, stripes of flat sedimentary layers- rock where you can see the eons, seashells embedded, reminding you that whales once hovered over this dusty land.
My neck is there, muscled, straining to maintain equilibrium. I want to unhook it, roll it out like fresh dough, release all its knots and vices, braid it loosely, reinstall.
Someone once told me I have raccoon hands- and like all comments that ring true and slightly shameful, that once has stuck with me. Small, scrappy, furred, pointed, nimble, almost human. Frantically washing, digging, plucking, sorting, rooting through trash to find the treasures.
When I dance I let my hands be waves, fists, flat paper, aimless birds, sun-seeking leaves.
When I breathe deeply sometimes I feel a cracking in my ribs, I imagine them stretching to full capacity and then continuing to expand, breaking apart not like a cage because that’s too obvious but like what, like a brittle shell, a too small container for a leggy hermit crab, or maybe like the chocolate shell on a soft serve swirl cone.
My body tells you things. But sometimes it doesn’t- sometimes I feel things my body won’t show you. I am often measured; I rarely get out of control unless I decide to. I don’t fall asleep unintentionally. I am pouring exactly 1 and ¾ cup of water into the bowl and you know it’s exact because I bent down to sea level to check its preciseness. That’s why my body likes alcohol, exercise, massage, swimming in the ocean. That’s why my body needs sex, sleep, sun, space.
Every so often I find
a new freckle on Mina.
Noticing freckles appear
on her pale skin is like
watching the stars
Venus was in the sky last night, piercing the dark darkish blue of after sunset- a bright white point in the center of the window. Benny said, there it is again, it was there last night in the same spot. We peered at it, perplexed. Could it be a planet? Wait, was it moving? No. Yes! No.
I googled, bright star in the western sky. Yes, Venus, at its especially brightest in May. I kept thinking, Venus, beauty and love at its brightest and that can’t be a bad thing.
I am so tender these days, on the verge of collapse, looking for ways to strengthen but maybe I should just submit, allow myself to break, I need a break, I need to break, to crumble so that I can rebuild, rebloom.
Last night Mina was energized, “activated” by bunny grahams, and even ran around outside in the parking lot after dinner.
“I think our bodies are magic,” she told me. “The way that our brains tell our bodies to do things. How does it work? How do our bodies move?”
I said, “I don’t know. I think it’s amazing how living things just grow, they just do it themselves. I think all living things are magic.” We kept talking about the brain and all its wonders, and she was alive with ideas. She said her idea tube was getting clogged up, but luckily she has 133 other ones. I’ve never seen her quite like that. I’m not sure what triggered it, what was different about yesterday.
At bedtime it took Mina a while to get tired so she had me do something mom made up, where she makes Mina out of clay. It was fun and I got lost in it, molding her features, smoothing her arms, scooping clay from around her neck to make shoulders, pinching fingers and ears. Afterwards she made me out of clay, and I felt myself becoming, gaining mass and form. I make her who in turn makes me.
I was getting ready to make dinner- I had chicken breast thawing on the counter, sprinkled with salt and lemon juice and I realized I hadn’t been outside all day and also I wanted a glass of wine and we were out of butter. Benny and Mina were upstairs playing video games and I thought, I could just drive over to the store for wine and butter. But I almost didn’t, the outside world was so black and wet, I had a sudden fear of the dark- like, why would I leave my safe warm house and open myself up to danger? Who knows what could happen on the five minute drive over? I felt fearful and vulnerable as I stepped out the door and locked it behind me, got in my car and turned it on, NPR coming on the radio. I heard two women talking, one interviewing the other. She asked her to read aloud her poem about the death of a loved one. Her voice was soft and cracked and wise. I wondered who the poet was. Then she read another poem about picking blackberries with her old hands that used to be her grandmother’s hands. The poem seemed to be directed to the poet’s daughter. At one point her voice caught and she had to tamp down a little sob. The interviewer asked her after, what was it that had “snagged” her, I think that was the word she used. “Well, it’s all there in the poem,” she said a bit snippety but I knew what she meant. Oh that great line: “the best berries grow in shadow.” By then I had found out it was Margaret Atwood. “What would a life lived entirely in daylight be like?” she said, and then answered her own question: “It would be a nightmare.”
I remember when the movie Titanic came out I was fifteen
My mom dropped me off at the big theater in the next town
and went to go run errands.
There was something so tragic and defiant, watching it alone
on Valentine’s Day. I felt the solid, self sufficient presence of myself,
tender but invincible, eyes wide and heart pumping
as that gigantic ship
I’m in the river but I’m a strong swimmer now. The thing is, I’ve always been a strong swimmer but I’m tired of being strong. I want to stop swimming. I want to float. I want to be swept downstream. I even want to sink, I want to feel the water close over my head, feel the weightless weight of me drift down, make gentle contact with the river bottom. I want to get knocked around by passing rocks, their sharp corners lighting up my skin, scraping my taut muscles. I want to let go. I want to be carried, rescued. Or even ignored, allowed to drift. I want to be forgotten, I want to forget. I want to wash up on shore with amnesia and believe I am a wayward fish, a frog, a snail.
So often I get tired of being human, of navigating human nuances, our complex needs and emotions, our tiresome journeys, searching and finding, or not finding. The ways we betray each other, and ourselves. I’m done. I’m done being human. Can I just decide that? Can I just be a lizard, a whale, a buffalo? I bought a buffalo tooth the other day. There’s a hole in the top of it. I can pull a string through it and wear it around my neck. I can carry a piece of a buffalo with me, I can pretend I am a buffalo. Will that help? I don’t know.
Dream purchase: a skirt from a vintage store, knee length and made from a silky, translucent blue and black material. And attached to the fabric, giant dead black scarab beetles. It was $20. I bought it, thinking I might never wear it, but I also might.
I fell in love with a mortal and I knew it was doomed. His life would come and go as if in a day. I’ve learned to love quickly and deeply, without attachment, without expectation. I’ve learned to breathe in their skin, memorize the dynamic changing colors of their eyes, taste the sweat on their neck, harmonize with their voice, make a map of their freckles. I’ve learned to be with, completely, almost becoming my love, being them for a day.
It’s frightening to become mortal, if only briefly. How can they live each day, waking up in the morning and not knowing if they will be alive by night? How can they wake up thinking, this might be the last time I brush my teeth, choose my clothes, heat water for coffee? They must hold two truths always in their hearts- the knowledge of their own imminent deaths, and the belief that they must act is if it’s not true. They must continue making plans as if there will be a tomorrow. How they must savor each moment! Maybe I envy them a little. Sometimes I forget to notice the moon, to watch the new spring buds. It all happens so fast for me.
I prefer spending time among rocks and trees, things that change slower. Then I can take the time to notice the widening and lengthening of a redwood, the erosion of a mountain ledge. I like to ride the glaciers, watch islands form, then disappear. It’s like watching the planet breathing- the shifting of oceans, the breaking apart of continents, the melting, the freezing, the heat, the cold.
I had a perfect karaoke night in early March when things were still open. I totally succumbed to that song, I pitched a tent in that song and lived there for a few weeks, I made that song the center of my body, I left my body and became spirit, and there was a crowd of loving, dancing, howling witnesses there with me. Why is it that the most perfect moments take you away from yourself, allow you to drop your ego and expand up and out, connecting you to everything and also simultaneously allow you to burrow deeper down into your exact molten center, momentarily touching the you that is truly you and could never be otherwise?
Another stolen moment. It’s after dinner, not quite bedtime yet. I didn’t announce that I was getting some Serra Time, I’m just taking it, waiting to be discovered. I was uninspired by the dredges of our fridge and made a weird veggie Mac n cheese thing which Mina refused to eat. Oh well.
Today I did laundry, planned three dinners for the coming week and put in a Freddy’s order, replaced a lightbulb, took a shower. Read Mina all three volumes of Bigby Bear comics- they were surprising and perplexing, like picture riddles. When they went upstairs to play games at 5:00 I wasted time shopping for Mina shoes online then decided to go for a walk in the windy, rainy evening.
As I walked north I could see the darkness of an impending downpour but wasn’t deterred, thinking it might be nice to feel some weather, safe in my rain jacket and Blundstone boots.
It felt good to walk, the air smelled of wood smoke. I turned left at Stephens towards Harrison park, the sidewalks mostly deserted. At Harrison there were many downed branches from the storm and one almost whole tree was in pieces. I felt a little vulnerable in the empty park, evening turning to night.
On the way home the drizzle turned to rain and then the sudden powerful downpour I’d been waiting for. The evening turned dark and hazy, foamy with rain that streamed down my glasses, pounded into my shoulders, soaked through my socks. I thought, it’s cool I still have this persistent desire, to be alive. I’ve always had this, this drive for growth, this invitation to challenge, this yearning to be up against the elements- awake, aware. I have felt it fade some over the last few years, and that really won’t do. I have to stay alive. It’s necessary.
Sometimes you’ll take this whole trip, like a family vacation, and maybe it’s mostly stressful and expensive and the food is bad and your kids are whiny and the airline lost your luggage but there’s going to be at least ONE moment where elements combine harmoniously and your senses are heightened from being in a new place and maybe you’re looking across the vista and taking your first real breath of the trip and you take a snapshot in your heart and mind- a 3D, sensory aware fully present photo- and that moment was what the entire trip was for and that’s fine, that’s what you came for, that’s what will remain.
On the radio this morning I heard about the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and someone read aloud something he wrote, What Is A Poem. Yes, yes, I thought as I listened. Poetry fits in the pocket of your heart, poetry is a lighthouse dragging its megaphone across the black ocean, poetry is your mother in her Woolworth bra gazing out the window at her garden, and so on. I thought, that’s what my writing needs- to be more poetic. Of course, that’s a tired thought for me, not a new one. And how does one be more poetic? By being aware of your senses, by being open to the world, absorbent, delighted, awake. And remembering to take notes. Be a wanderer, an observer, not just of the world but your inner self too, and the way one plays off the other. Your heart is the anchor you tie your rope to, then swing the rope like a lasso, seeing what you can snag.
I want to create, but there’s a new apathetic, cynical side of me that whispers, “Why? Why bother? So you can write a poem that lives in a closed journal? So you can make a painting that gets stuffed in a drawer? Who will see it? Who will care? It’s just one weak shout among millions.” I know not to listen to that voice. But it’s there nevertheless.
I realized something this morning; a thought came to me
I’d like to share with you an excerpt of a “novelette” I wrote recently about the summer when I was 20 years old and had a job as a camp counselor. I slimmed it down quite a bit to make it more compatible with the blog format but I think this may be an even better version than the original, in its edited form. I hope you enjoy it! It’s my most ambitious foray into memoir writing.
“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.“ Henry Miller
There was something fascinating about the Puget Sound. Being from San Diego, I thought I knew water- I had grown up with my feet in the hot sand, a boogie board in my hands. I was intimate with the patterns of waves, familiar with the sting of saltwater in my eyes, that uncomfortable yet nostalgic feeling when water goes up your nose. I knew the chlorinated blueness of swimming pools, I knew the deep emerald of rivers rushing through the Sequoia National Park, minutes from my Grandparents’ house. But I’d never seen water like this- smooth, silver, misty, iridescent. Pooling around mounds of islands, green with trees or distant, the same powder blue as the water. I was used to water that extended forever, an impossible distance. This water was cozy, contained, a peaceful pocket of beauty.
I stood on the farthest point of Samish Island (technically a peninsula), on a narrow finger of sand known as The Point. Standing there I always felt like I was on the prow of a ship. There was nothing out there but large chunks of driftwood that kids sometimes balanced on, and some rocks green with slime. The air felt fresh and warm with a hint of coolness, a breeze coming off the water. I was wearing a pair of dusty green pants, vintage running shoes that said The Winner on the tongues in gold cursive, and a Talking Heads T-shirt. My black curly hair tumbled in the wind, bangs blowing back to expose my forehead. I was letting it grow after six years of having short hair, and the feel of its wild movement around my head was a novelty for me.
Although I was tired with an exhaustion I’d never known, I felt strong and alive. I was halfway into the summer, something I knew not to think too hard about. I was taking this experience a day at a time and five more weeks of this seemed incomprehensible. It was 5:00 in the evening- I was already an hour into my break. At 6:00 I would need to head over to the dining hall and find my kids, do dinner, clean up, evening campfire, then get everyone into their beds.
That morning had tested my patience: sometime in the night some of the boys had pranked the girls by smearing toothpaste on all the rungs of the ladders that went up to the treehouses, which really I had to deal with because I’m the one who uses those ladders first every day, climbing up to each of the cabins to wake up the girls for breakfast.
After breakfast we’d had archery. I’d discovered I had a knack for archery, something about the way it required you to stop, focus, and aim- a combination of stillness and strength. After lunch we did the ropes course activity by Water Rat which was always a big hit except Mackenzie had trouble with the trust fall part at the end. She really wanted to do it but just couldn’t get over her fear. We tried to help her feel safe and relaxed but she ended up not doing it and feeling frustrated with herself.
In the afternoon there was some kind of drama between Tessa and Kendall, there was a lot of huddles and note passing and at one point I saw Tessa crying while Megan consoled her. I definitely preferred the twelve year olds to the six year olds I had at the beginning of the summer, but that meant I have to deal with crushes and social drama.
Sometimes it wasn’t so much about what happened that day, just the fact that I was on duty the whole time, except for that euphoric two hour break.On my daily break (or “STO” as we called it- Staff Time Off) I was often writing- letters to Mom, to Scott, to Nate, to Diana- or writing in my journal. I would head to Tayito, the counselor’s cabin, check my mailbox cubby and sink down into one of the soft couches to read my letters and write. But sometimes I needed to be here at The Point- as far from everyone as possible, soaking in the scene, feeling myself here, now.
As I stood at the edge of the water and watched the sun make its slow descent behind the islands, I thought how strange it was that I had ended up here. I had never intended to be a camp counselor. I didn’t really like being around kids, especially lots of kids in once place, especially kids I’m supposed to be in charge of. I didn’t have a bubbly, energetic personality. I was someone who needed a lot of time to myself and didn’t like a lot of responsibility or constrictions. I had never spent much time around kids and my one attempt at babysitting went badly. Personally I never planned to have kids of my own. When I had submitted my application for this job I had applied for the dishwasher position. But during my phone interview, Jen, one of the owners of the camp, told me they were short on counselors and she convinced me to take that job instead.
Before camp began, I had spent the three previous weeks in the town of Everett, Washington with my new love interest, Scott. We had met several months before in Chico, California where I was living to go to college and we fell reluctantly in love. Reluctantly for me because I was already in a relationship with my first love, Nate, and although it had so far been an open relationship, we were giving monogamy a go. And reluctantly for him because he was much older than me (I was 19 when we met, he was 33) and he knew that we were at different places in our lives. He was also emotionally guarded in general and struggled with social anxiety. It had been a very odd three weeks living with him in a small apartment with his brother and sister in law and two nieces. The excitement of our romance dulled as reality set in and I realized that maybe he was right, maybe there wasn’t really a future for us. I had found this camp counselor job to be near Scott for the summer, but I was beginning to think that maybe the relationship was something of a vehicle to get me to this upcoming experience. I had a feeling it was going to be transformative.
I didn’t have a ride to Camp Kirby so I’d bought a bus ticket to Mt. Vernon, the closest town to camp, and on the phone they’d told me that someone would be meeting me there to give me a ride. When I got off the bus in the morning I saw a tall woman with short blond hair and a Camp Kirby 2002 shirt waiting for me at the station.
“Hi, are you Serra? I’m Jen!” We got in her minivan and made the half hour drive while she told me a little about the camp. She and her girlfriend had been running the camp for about five years, but the camp itself had been around since 1930.
“What brought you to Washington?” She asked. “All the other counselors are from the area. We don’t usually get anyone in from California!”
“Well,” I started, not sure how to explain my situation. I thought about telling her that I was impulsively chasing a doomed relationship but thought better of it. What I settled on was more of a deeper truth. “I wanted to explore a place far from home.”
We pulled into camp, passing the wooden sign with “Camp Kirby” carved into it with jaunty cursive. We trundled around a bend and down a dirt road curving through thick forests. I caught glimpses of cabins and huts through the trees. At the bottom of the hill the forest made way for a large flat open space dotted with larger buildings connected by foot paths. A wide lodge stood at the bottom of the hill with a sign that said Dining Hall. More cabins could be seen in the distance, and near the shore, and a collection of canvas and wood tee-pees. A wooden totem pole and a flagpole flying the American flag and a Camp Kirby flag stood in the center of the field. And surrounding everything, the calm, shining water of Samish Bay.
Most the staff had already arrived at Tayito, the counselor’s cabin, for our first day of training. In an email I’d received about working at the camp, I was told I’d need to choose a camp name by the first day. I decided on Milo, the name of the protagonist in one of my favorite books from childhood, The Phantom Tollbooth. Jen and I walked into the large cabin where a group of people about my age were on floors and couches, chatting with each other.
The first thing she had us do was go around the room and introduce ourselves using our camp name. There was Hollywood, a peppy and earthy blond girl. Kalahari, pale and glamorous with long dark hair. Turbo, a big muscular guy who looked like he had been popular in High School. Maxx, a petite and tan girl with sleek blond hair and a nose stud. Night Owl, a quiet stoner-ish guy with short dark hair and aviator sunglasses. Teriyaki, an androgynous looking girl with short hair and a mischievous smirk. Hobbes, a big round smiley guy with a Bumbershoot T-shirt. Light Speed, a kind of unintentionally ironic name for a sleepy, sedentary girl with dark hair and a solemn expression. Luna, a small, sweet looking girl wearing a muscle tee and hair bandanna. Feika, who had a big smile and short dark hair.
Jen, whose camp name was Gravity, started us off by writing on a big whiteboard at the front of the room the daily camp schedule:
9:30 Scramble (Camper’s choice activities)
12:45 Rest hour
-Outdoor living skills
– Ropes course
-Arts and crafts
– Rock wall climbing
-Music and drama
7:15 All Camp activity
8:30 Chapel (on Tuesdays)
9:30 Lights out
She told us a little about each item on the board and let us know that Chapel wasn’t a religious activity, it was just a moment of quiet reflection in a beautiful spot in the woods. She also reminded us that we would each be getting one 2 hour break daily when one of the activity leaders would take over our kids for that time period. At the end of every week we got 24 hours off- from 2:00 pm on Saturday to 2:00 Sunday. It was information that I understood but didn’t really absorb.
After a quick break we all went outside and learned some field games and team buildings exercises, then we walked around the camp for a tour. We checked out Shuta- the arts and crafts cabin, saw the waterfront shed where all the boats are kept, Herman’s Hut- a building by the water with a kitchen and a bedroom, TeePee Town where the teenage campers stay, the cabins where the younger kids stay, Health House where Gravity’s girlfriend Journey tended to sick kids and injuries, the Dining Hall, and then we all tromped up the hill to visit the Hi-Tor treehouse cabins for the 12 year old kids, which was where I would be staying. She also pointed out where, across the road from the treehouses, all of the forested hiking trails started. All the counselors with kids ranging from ages 8-12 would be doing weekly campouts in the forest in campsites at the end of these trails. The teenagers would be canoeing out to their campsites on Saddlebag Island, the small island directly across from us.
After lunch we started learning some camp songs which, if you’ve been to summer camp, you know is a major part of camp experience. Although I’d been to camp a few times as a kid, none of these songs were familiar to me. But after some repetition we were picking them up pretty fast. I can still remember my favorite camp song, a kind of sing-songy chant complete with snapping and hand gestures:
Way out West where the badlands are
And the only thing to guide you is the evening star
Is the roughest, toughest, man by far
And his name is Cowboy Joe.
He always sings (ch ch ch) ragtime music to his cattle as he swings
Back and forth on his saddle on his horse (pretty good horse!)
It’s a syncopated gator and it’s such a funny meter to the
sound of his repeater
How do they run (how do they run!) when they hear that he’s a-comin’
‘Cause the Western folks all know (what do they know?)
He’s a high falutin’ rootin’ tootin’
Son of a gun from Arizona
Ragtime cowboy, talk about ‘cher cowboy
Ragtime Cowboy Jooooe (BANG!)
At the end of the day everyone grabbed their luggage from Tayito where it had been tossed into a pile and headed off to their respective cabins. I shared a treehouse cabin with Maxx, one of the other Hi-Tor counselors. She was sweet and fun and we got along fine. After I’d unpacked my stuff I looked around and enjoyed the look of my trusty blue and yellow down sleeping bag on the creaky twin bed, my own personal window looking out on pine trees and the shining bay, and a shelf under the window on which I had placed a little book my mom had made, a beaded hemp necklace Nate had made, a sweet note from Scott, and a little bottle of eucalyptus essential oil.
I woke up alone in the treehouse cabin, light rain tapping on the metal roof, foggy light oozing in the tiny window. I walked down the hill in the warmish moist air, gray water spread out in the distance. “I am here now,” I realized. I took a shower in Tayito, luscious hot water and clean smells, felt good and rested as I had coffee and cereal.
Before training started for the day I walked along the shore with Feika, wading in the warm water, thick with seaweed, and watched mesmerized by tiny barnacles opening their tiny mouths and sweeping the water with frothy tongues. We picked up rocks and inspected their colors, mused about their age and the way they were formed.
I enjoyed Feika immensely- she was so graceful and melodious, long neck, short dark hair and long earrings, thick eyebrows and open face, mostly quiet but sometimes exploding in beautiful wonder, like when she discovered a kind of barnacle that opened in a different way, and her awe at all the amazing rocks that she kept in her slender hand and the pink trees that grew out from the sharp gray rock that jutted out from the cliff and crumbled into the water.
After programming schedule she whispered, “Milo!” As I was going out the door and asked me secretly with a devilish grin, “You wanna get some ice cream?” And we snuck off to the lodge for strawberry ice cream that she’d made from strawberries from the garden and we ate it with strawberry syrup and whipped cream and bananas as we sat on the porch of the lodge and watched a mama sparrow fly off in search of bugs to feed her baby sparrows in the nest up in the corner.
One day during training week we all drove out to Deception Pass State Park for some rock climbing. Water Rat, the ropes course instructor, led the rock climbing activity. He was a ski instructor during the winter and often led river rafting trips or worked at camps in the summers. At 29, he was older than all the counselors but maintained a childlike enthusiasm for play and adventure. He was short and muscular, with a kind face and shaggy brown hair that brushed his shoulders. I enjoyed the rock climbing and thought it might be something I want to get into more back in Chico. I especially liked the part when you make your way to the top and then have to repel down by keeping your feet on the rock and leaning back so that the person hanging on to your rope can slowly ease you back to the ground. I liked that feeling of surrender and trust.
After my turn up the rock I sat by the water for a while and just gazed out at the view. Flat light blue, reflecting the dark green of islands that like the sloping backs of whales. Gray mist against the trees. The water looked to be calm but I knew it was terribly fast, terribly deep- rotating softly in its circular current. A sudden shift in wind made the water ripple with a quick sharp sound. No one on the beach, just the patient driftwood resting on rocks. If not for the bridge transporting cars and semis and the ominous planes flying high overhead, I could have tricked myself into believing I was there hundreds of years ago. Just this, this that had been here so long before we all arrived. Someday maybe, instead of trees there would be condos and shops, but for now there was this and I was there, and the present was all we had.
The next day we pulled out the canoes and something called a “funyak”- basically a kayak that you sit on top of instead of inside of. I strapped on a life vest, grabbed a couple of oars and dragged a funyak out to the water. I got on and rowed myself around, delighted to be out on the rippling water, enjoying the feeling of the oars in the my hands, the fresh breeze against my face, the water sparkling with light. I had had some experience with boats, I learned about rowing from toodling around in my Grandparent’s rowboat on their big pond in the backyard. I had also gone on a few river rafting trips with friends in Chico who were training to be Outward Bound instructors. I felt that I had a kinship with water, like I knew what it was feeling, what it wanted. I rowed out pretty far and stopped, wanting to just breathe and be and feel grateful for this moment. I leaned back and relaxed against the hard plastic of the funyak, my paddles criss crossed over my stomach. I almost closed my eyes, the gentle rock of the boat lulling me into a sleepy state. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had made it to this gorgeous place and I had already made amazing friends. Whatever happened next, I could totally handle it. This was where I was meant to be.
After several minutes I heard a yell. “Milo! Head on back please!” Gravity was calling to me from the shore. She sounded very far away. I sat up and looked- the breeze and the current had carried me further than I expected. With a mix of slight alarm and resentment I muscled my way back to land, somewhat miffed that my blissful moment was cut short.
Sometimes I think about that moment with wonder and amazement. I had almost fallen asleep on a funyak in the Puget Sound with no real thought to consequence. I was completely relaxed and at ease in a somewhat dangerous situation, not particularly caring whether or not I got swept downstream and stranded on a random island. It reminds me of how, as a restless teenager who hadn’t gotten her driver’s license yet, I would sometimes board a bus from the remote country suburb of Ramona to Hillcrest, the coolest and edgiest section of San Diego. Normally a one hour drive in a car, it took three hours on a city bus, but it felt worth it to me just to get out of my boring town. As a teenager I was compelled by a passionate and selfish drive to get as far away from my house and hometown as possible, as often as possible. Not that anything was wrong with my home; in fact, I was raised in a very loving and stable family and my childhood was what you might call idyllic. But, like my friends that I had to distance myself from, escape was necessary if I was going to become my full self and devour everything the world had to offer. Even if it meant setting out with no intention of planning a return trip.
That night as I lay in bed in my treehouse cabin I thought of Ramona and its deep eternal silence, and going to bed in my muffled room, closed off from the resonant house- the silence extending from our house past the neighborhood and through the entire town. Warm familiarity, unquestionable safety, steady breathing and the constance of an immortal childhood, in a place that would always be the foundation of the person I was. Sometimes I felt like I was still there, in my familiar room, sitting on my familiar bed, everything around me as familiar as my own body, memorized in each small detail. And what was this life? This daydream? It made me constantly look around in awe- a stunning disbelief that I wasn’t sitting in my room in Ramona. Ever since I left, my life had been one long out of body experience. Delicious disorientation, beautiful bewilderment. Who was I this moment?
The first week of camp took me to the extent of my capabilities. There was a shortage of Hi-Tor campers the first week so I got Indian Villagers instead- the six year olds. I’d never done anything so hard in my life. I hadn’t anticipated how needy they would be, how dependent on me for everything. In the night they would wake me several times so I could escort them to the bathroom or because they’d had a bad dream. Sometimes they wet their sleeping bags and in the morning would be drenched and shivering. They were constantly homesick or bored or wanting to know what we were going to do next. They had questions for me all the time. And not just that but I was uncomfortable with being a figure of authority. It felt weird to have to say sternly, “Lights out! Everyone go to sleep!” at bedtime, or “everyone get your shoes on, it’s time to head to the dining hall!” I still felt mostly like a kid myself and I felt extremely unqualified to be the leader and caretaker of this group of young girls. I didn’t know how to be fun and playful with them because I was too stressed out about maintaining order and getting them to where they needed to be on time.
It was only Tuesday when I passed Turbo on the path and he asked, “How you doing, Milo? Tired?” as he threw his arm around me and I bleated out, “I’m so tired!” and threw myself against him laughing and suddenly to my horror burst into tears. Ashamed, I ran to the bathroom to quietly sob and gasp with these new feelings and fears.
That night I got to find out what Chapel was. It was held at a half circle of wooden benches up in the forest, near the cliffs. It was one of the most beautiful places in camp- since Chapel was held at around sundown, you could watch the glimmering sunset through the trees as the sun sank below the water. Journey started it off playing “This Land is Your Land” on her guitar as most of us sang along. Then she led us in what was called the “Washington Rainstorm.” The way it worked was she would start doing something- the campers to the right of her were to copy her movements, then the campers to their right copied their movements and so on. You weren’t supposed to do the movement until you saw the person to your left doing it. She started off by rubbing her hands together, then snapping her fingers, clapping her hands, slapping her thighs, stomping her feet, slapping her thighs again, clapping her hands, snapping her fingers, and back to where she had started with rubbing her hands. The movements created small sounds, but combined with the whole camp making the sounds in the way that you might sing a “round” it magically created the audio illusion of a rainstorm passing through the forest.
Another thing that happened at every Chapel was Journey would find a rock to pass around. When the rock was passed to you, you were to hold it for a moment and make a wish on it. When the rock made its way back to Journey, she would chuck it out into the water. The whole scene was very peaceful and magical, and I always looked forward to Chapel.
It wasn’t until later when I realized that our training week had essentially been the gift of a week of summer camp. Journey and Gravity did everything with us that we were, in turn, to do with our campers. When I thought of it that way I felt blessed that I was able to, at the age of 20, experience summer camp again. But it left me a little sad as well, the fact that now we all had to be in charge for the rest of the summer. It was like an abrupt loss of childhood.
On my day off after the second week I stayed at camp with Luna, Turbo, Feika, and Water Rat. Feika and Water Rat and I decided to go by our real names on our days off and I was trying to get used to calling them Cassandra and Brian. We sat and talked for hours in Cassandra’s teepee. She was so genuine and loving of everything and so wise, and Brian was tender and soft and childlike, so in need of love and nurturing and understanding. His face always looked as if it was melting. He told us about this girl he was engaged to for a while but who left him suddenly, and soft tears brimmed in his eyes, his nose red and shiny. I sat beside him and held him close, feeling his hurt and loneliness. He was a delicate soul, full of life and joy but also enormous pain, and I hoped so much that he finds his soulmate. I marveled at the fact that everywhere I went I met amazing people with brilliance spilling from them. I often felt that I was one of those people.
Walking to the lodge to do laundry it again occurred to me where I was, and again was surprised by the realization. I knew this was where I was supposed to be even if it was uncomfortable and awkward and frustrating. I could feel myself expanding and that’s how I knew it was right.
That afternoon after all the kids had left, I was filled with a certain bursting hugeness- something explosive I needed to express. A bunch of us made lunches and ate them on the grass. I devoured my hummus and egg salad sandwich and thought, “this is the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.” I lay on the porch of the lodge and soaked in the sun, listened to the conversations between Gravity, Journey, Turbo, and Luna and just felt so full of goodness and thought, “I just want to stay right here for the rest of my life.”
Cassandra and I washed dishes and I told her, “Oh man, I’m just filled with something and I gotta let it out!”
“I know!” She said, laughing wonderfully. I could tell she felt it too. A beautiful Ben Harper song came on the stereo and I danced fully, slowly, in the empty dining hall, singing though I didn’t know the words, letting my body do what it wanted. The song was something about being ready to put on his long white robe.
There were times during the week when I thought I was just going to start screaming, have some kind of tantrum. My anger would flare up at the kids and I would struggle to contain it. My dreams had become laced with anger. My laughter was loud and abrupt. Silence was rare. Homesickness under the surface of it all. When all the parents came that morning to pick up their kids, I felt a desperate wish that my mom was coming to pick me up and the thought carried a large, unknowable sadness.
In a way, maybe it was good I started off with the youngest age group because everything after that felt almost easy by comparison. I found that the 12 year olds were much more independent so I had more time to myself instead of entertaining them or cleaning up wet sleeping bags or escorting them to the nurse for a splinter or a “sprained” ankle. I could actually have real conversations with these girls and connect with them on a more equal level. Often we would just be hanging out outside the treehouses making friendship bracelets and talking.
On our campout, Maxx and I led our two groups of kids into the woods with our sleeping bags and gear. During the week of training we were taught how to build a fire, something I’d never really gotten the hang of before. For the first time I understood how a fire worked, how you had to feed it carefully and lovingly without smothering it. The goal was to make a “one match fire”- constructing it so well that it lit the first time. For the campout we made tacos for dinner over the fire and I succeeded in making a one match fire. I was starting to feel more competent, like maybe I would actually get through the summer in one piece.
Journey stopped by later with her guitar and led a sing along as we sat around the fire, watching it dance and spark in the darkness. She offered the guitar to me at one point and I played one of my favorite Tracy Chapman songs:
She’s got her ticket
I think she’s gonna use it
Think she’s gonna fly away
No one should try and stop her
Persuade her with their power
She says that her mind is made up
It was a song I often played when I was feeling trapped back in Ramona, or stifled by Nate’s influence. It felt so different to play it here, under the trees, surrounded by young spirited girls, the muscle of my independence strengthening inside of me.
After the fire died down we all snuggled into our sleeping bags. How the girls screamed, how they gossiped, how they snored and burped and complained and laughed hysterically, their screams and squeals echoing out into the dark woods. I lay on my back and gazed at the bright stars through the opening in the tall evergreens, breathed in deeply and wished for silence. And yet the chaos continued.
On my next day off I sat by silent water and watched as a large boat passed slowly, its wake extending from it in two dark trails like snail slime. Murmuring and squawking seagulls clamored on the shore. A white feather floated by, lit brilliantly by the sun. A layer of gray mist hung on the water, clothing distant islands. The ripples from the boat finally arrived- a progression of small waves that shattered on the gooey rocks, and then again silence.
Cassandra came by and sat beside me. “So was this week any better for you than last week?’
“Much better. I’m still exhausted but I think I can handle it. How were your kids?” Cassandra had teenagers, which sounded like a nightmare to me since we were still basically teenagers ourselves. I couldn’t imagine having to be someone in charge of a group of kids only a couple years younger than me. But it seemed to suit her fine.
“They were great! We had so much fun. They loved canoeing out to the island for our campout. I was a little nervous about it but it went well.”
“It’s so nice to finally be able to talk to you! I don’t think I really saw you all week.”
“I know! It’s weird that we made all these amazing friends the first week but we don’t get to see each other much the rest of the summer.”
I picked up a smooth stick of driftwood and held it between my hands. “Did you go to summer camp when you were a kid?”
“Yeah, almost every summer. You?”
“A few times. I was thinking about how you make friends at summer camp- intense friendships- and then after the summer you probably never see those friends again. Maybe you write letters for a year or two but that’s it.”
“Yeah, totally. At the time you think you’re going to be friends for life.”
“It makes me a little sad, to connect with people and then never see them again,” I said. “But it also feels natural, like maybe it’s ok. I can appreciate you in this moment, let myself be changed by you. And then we can thank each other and move on.”
Cassandra smiled at me with warmth and love, and then looked back to the bay, nodding. “It’s a flow, like the movement of water.”
There was one camper named Rebecca who I remember most out of anyone because she was there all summer. I didn’t know why or what was going on with her parents but at the start of every week she was back. Sometimes she was in my group and sometimes she was in Maxx’s group. She kind of acted as an assistant counselor because she was mature for her age and knew more about the camp than even the counselors, since she’d been going there since she was small. She was also a little bossy and loved knowing everything so she was the perfect guide, especially for the kids who were shy and nervous.
That week went pretty smoothly except for the morning after the camp out. We woke to spatterings of raindrops on our faces as we slept in our sleeping bags outside at the Maukualla campsite. The rain stopped pretty soon after we all woke up but all the wood was wet so we struggled to make our morning fire. It was a lot of pressure to make a one match fire with wet wood while twenty two hungry 12 year olds circled me whining that they were wet and cold and hungry. I was so determined that I was going to start the damn fire, even with the wet wood. I felt like a master fire builder by that point so I was sure that I could do it. After about an hour of trying, we finally ended up heading over to Herman’s Hut, which had a kitchen, and making our pancakes there.
I was starting to learn how to really enjoy the kids, how to relax and have fun. The only thing I was still struggling with, besides not enough time to myself, was the kids’ homesickness. Even the 12 year olds were overcome frequently by homesickness and I never knew what to do for them. I had no idea how to help. Rebecca gave me a clue one night when I went into her cabin to say goodnight and she was in bed looking sad. “Can you sing that ‘she’s got a ticket’ song for me?”she asked. I settled in next to her bunk bed and sang the song, tapping on the wooden bed for a beat. As I sang, she snuggled into her bed and closed her eyes, looking peaceful and content. When she had fallen asleep, I carefully climbed back down the ladder and made my way back to my own treehouse. I took a moment to admire the night sky through the darkened pines, the shimmer of black water through the trees. The moon was almost full. I’d been living on Samish Island for five weeks.
On Saturday after the kids all left, Brian showed up at my cabin with a couple beers. We walked off grounds to a little forest area and sat and drank them, talking about many things as we kept an eye on the road for Scott in Tim’s truck. When he arrived me hugged happily and his bright face was a joy to see. I liked showing him around the camp, introducing him to people, talking in the Health House with Gravity, Luna, and Teriyaki. We had planned to canoe out to Saddlebag Island but the weather wasn’t looking so good so we considered heading to some nearby hot springs instead. We loaded up the truck an hour later with a big tent, some food, sleeping bags, and ourselves- Scott and Brian in the front, me and Cassandra in the back. I loved the drive, laughing and talking, watching the world slide past- farms and trees and little towns. We stopped at a berry farm and got raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and cherries, and sucked them carefully and sacredly with delighted moans of pleasure as we cruised along, she and I bursting with secret joy- expectancy, appreciation, gratitude, wonder.
After an hour’s drive we found the gravel road that led to the hot springs. We bounced along that for a while and finally arrived at a little parking area with a stunning view of looming mountains carpeted with pines and topped with snow, enormous rough faces of red mountain rock. We grabbed towels and swimsuits and walked along a trail, ferns and dozens of wet banana slugs and eerie dead looking trees with tufts of dripping green moss hanging from bare branches. The hot springs came into view, a medium sized deep pool, steamy green gray water surrounded by rocks.
Floating on my back with my eyes closed and Scott’s hands supporting me, my ears under the surface hearing only underwater muffled sounds of voices and the sharp gritty crunch of stones being stepped on. Then we switched and I supported him as he floated. We had come to a comfortable point in our relationship after a lot of late night discussions. Scott realized it was futile to try to “figure out” what we were and where we were headed, if anywhere. I had mostly released my grip on Scott after those weeks in Everett; I had seen a side of him that I didn’t find so attractive and I was coming to terms with our incompatibility. But we still had a deep affection and tenderness for each other that felt nice and light, unburdened by expectations. We had started to learn how to enjoy each other in the moment, knowing that we were nearing the end of our time together.
Brian sat brooding in the steaming pool, bare shoulders and tips of his hair wet and curly, looking slightly sad the way he sometimes did. Cassandra gleaming and brimming with joy, face of beauty and light. And afterwards we felt so warm and relaxed through and through. We found a campsite as it was getting dark, got a fire going and the tent up. We ate delicious food that Scott brought- salad and barley, raw corn, tortillas and hummus- and drank beers that Brian brought. Cassandra and I played a few songs on her guitar. In the morning we left quickly, ate some waffles and fruit in the car on the way back, loose and happy and looking forward to the upcoming week.
That week there was a break in regular camp- instead there was Cricket Camp, which was preschool aged kids for day camp. It was also a time to catch up on maintenance work. The first night we camped out by the water- Turbo, Maxx, Water Rat and I, under the full moon. In the morning after breakfast Teriyaki and Turbo and I started painting Herman’s Hut. We didn’t get very far but it was fun. We also painted the funyak rack and cleaned off the basketball court to paint a four square court. It was a very hot day and we sprayed each other with hoses. We had our own little carnival- Luna and I were doing face painting. I made two girls into cats, a boy into a tiger, and another boy into a lizard. I also painted abstract designs on Hobbes’ and Maxx’s faces. After dinner there was Fairy Ring and I volunteered to be a fairy. Several of us hid in the bushes and when the kids came near we giggled and talked like fairies and answered all their questions about fairy life.
I went to bed early for a change. It felt good at the end of the day to be sore and sunburnt and paint speckled. I’d been really living. The next day Teriyaki and I cleaned out the recycling shed and drove Magdalena the truck three times to the center. I loved cruising down the empty roads, past farms and fields, laughing and talking with her, the wind blowing my hair all around. Sorting through all the material, I felt proud that I knew what goes where and missed my recycling job back in Chico. Three more weeks of camp, then back home.
Scott and I had made plans to spend my day off together at the end of the week. He arrived as I sat on the beach a couple hours after all the kids had left. He walked towards me carefully and I walked towards him. Our words slid off each other and hovered in the air, useless. We touched each other delicately, without purpose. Whatever it was we had to say was not said. We took a nap in the treehouse. When we awoke, we left. We drove to Bellingham. We ate some dinner on a bench. We stumbled into a coffee shop and listened with delight to an eccentric political folk duo from Pennsylvania. We went to a small theater and saw The Believer. We made music with the bike rack. We gazed at the moon from the side of the road. We remembered things. That night we had another intense discussion about our relationship that felt more like a solid break up than any other talk we’d had. I could feel my heart moving father away from him and closer to Nate.
The next day was off- skewed. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I just wanted to leave. We left. We drove. We passed La Conner and Anacortes, and after much driving we found ourselves in Deception Pass State Park, on a beach eating mangos. We lay in the sand and discussed our views on direct action. The sun was blinding. I felt like a silly human with no purpose.
We thought we should find a place to sleep. We didn’t want to pay for a campsite so we drove down the roads looking for a place to park so we could camp in the wilderness somewhere. We found nothing. We didn’t know what to do. Scott was sick of driving. He was getting cranky and didn’t want to be the one making decisions. We decided to go back to Camp Kirby. We made a fire in Teepee Town, ate salad and sandwiches and oysters from the beach. Things felt better. We slept in a teepee in separate cots. In the morning he woke me up as he was leaving. He told me he lay in the darkness of early morning suddenly recognizing feelings of rejection. He felt wounded. He’d felt the same way in the car yesterday but was disregarding his feelings and trying to think them through and analyze the situation- something he always does instead of trusting and feeling his emotions. He told me this, then kissed me gently and left. I thought of the days when Scott was a harmless friend and longed for that.
Another week of twelve year olds. One night I built a fire in the Hi-Tor lodge because everyone was just running around crazy and there was so much boy/girl drama that I wanted something that would get them all in one place and calm them down. The odd thing though- Turbo and Maxx were going through some kind of drama themselves. I accidentally walked in on them having an emotional discussion and Maxx was crying. And this discussion continued off and on throughout the evening. I was sitting there on the bench outside the lodge, calmly making a friendship bracelet and humming Leon Russell, watching the odd, absurd drama unfold. Girls scowling and pissed off, girls crying, boys slamming doors, boys apologizing, boys and girls discussing, girls and boys laughing and pushing each other- and in the midst of it all Maxx stormed off down the road teary-eyed, and Turbo sat beside me wearily, also red-eyed, staring ahead blankly. We were no different from them.
Later that night Maxx, Turbo, Water Rat, Teriyaki and I huddled in the dark lodge in front of the glowing fire. Water Rat told stories about river rafting, about places with 20 foot waves and they’d just smash you down, and the Arkansas river when it was flooding, with a level higher than anyone had ever seen it. We scared ourselves with stories of the white wolf that runs on its hind legs and once terrorized a cabin of Hi-Tor girls. Just like the kids we were still fascinated with fear and the dark, with beasts and spirits that lurked out there.
For some reason or another, that week the teenage group wasn’t going out to Saddlebag Island for their camp out. I think there was maybe one person who had a fear of boats so they all decided to do a forest camp out instead. So, because I had the next age group down and my kids that week were especially mature, Gravity offered the possibility that Maxx and I could take our kids to the island instead. We were excited at the idea, especially since we’d never been out there and this was our last chance to check it out. The kids were up for it too.
The trip there went smoothly. It was a warm, blue day and the bay was sparkling. With all of us paddling it was about a 40 minute trip. It was exciting to finally be on Saddlebag Island after almost a whole summer of seeing it across the bay. Once we arrived and set up camp, Maxx and I gave each other a small break. On my break I took a walk around the entire island which took about half an hour. It was interesting to be seeing Campy Kirby from a different perspective. We did our usual dinner of tacos cooked over the campfire and bedded down for the night.
The tricky part was the way back. The island had a little beach on the West side where we had arrived the previous day with no problems. But as we tried to get our canoes back out into the water, we were met repeatedly with large waves that pushed our boats back to shore. It was frightening to wait for a lull between waves and push the boat out, only to collide with an oncoming wave that splashed over the side and drenched everyone on board. We tried over and over again to get past the waves and into calmer waters but kept failing. Finally a couple in a speed boat saw us and roped our boat to theirs, pulling us out to where we could paddle on our own. We were so relieved to be past the waves, but we had some water in the boat. I figured it wouldn’t make much of a difference but the girls were completely freaked out and thought we were going to sink. Marissa was almost hysterical because she was on her period and wearing a pad, and sitting in a couple inches of water. I tried to let everyone know we were going to be fine, but no one quite believed me. We paddled as fast as we could with a fearful determination, frantic to be back on land as soon as possible. Rebecca, the camper who was there all summer, was doing a much better job than me of trying to keep spirits up. “C’mon, everyone! We got this! We’re almost there! We’re gonna make it!” She kept chanting, “1, 2, 3, 4! 1, 2 ,3, 4!” To keep us all paddling in sync.
When we got to shore, we all cheered wildly and jumped out, pulling the canoe up onto land. I was surprised to see Rebecca collapse with fatigue, sobbing. I suddenly understood what she had gone through to hold us all together and now that we were safe, it was ok for her to fall apart. I had so much admiration for her in that moment, and from her I learned a great deal about what it meant to be a leader.
It was the last day off before my last week of camp. Scott showed up at Tayito as I was watching a movie. We went outside and sat on a log on the beach and talked, watching the evening sky darken. Then we went over to Shuta to see if Hollywood was painting, which she was, and she invited us to join her. I was grateful we were offered this form of interaction- creating together, not obligated to make conversation, expressing ourselves quietly and contentedly, eating popcorn and cantaloupe. Our painting turned out very beautiful, I thought. Soon after I started painting I ditched the brush and went to fingers, enjoying the smears and watery blending but really craving an intense depth of just black or just green, or I wanted to plunge my hands through the canvas, seize the floorboards with my dripping hands and rip the whole place apart, growling and laughing. Lately this had been a familiar craving, this drive to destroy, to fight against something, to wrestle and scream and come out bruised and muddy and gleeful.
When it got late we packed up the paints and headed to the treehouse, crawled into bed shivering. We talked in the dark for a long time, my hand placed lightly on his stomach. We both decided to avoid talking about our relationship and trying to make some sense of it and we stuck to topics that were deep and personal and humorous. I was glad that we could have a satisfying ending instead of leaving it awkward and uncomfortable. In the morning when he left we shared a good hug, loving but without longing, and he was gone. My last week was about to begin.
I knew it would be the week for realizing that it would never be like this again. I knew it as I re-entered the rowdy dining hall after going to the bathroom; I knew it as I talked with one of my kids as we descended the hill; I knew it as I stood on The Point at the very peak of high tide, facing the camp and water on each side of me- a sizzling metallic blue gently reflecting the dying pink of the sky, water choppy and crashing to my left, smooth ripples on the right, several kids around me inspecting rocks or tossing driftwood back into the bay or just gazing across the expanse.
I knew this as I sat on the blue bench outside the Hi-Tor lodge for night watch duty. Balou the CIT (Counselor In Training) sneezed inside as he lay on the bunk bed in the dark, radio on. Besides the muffled music the only sound was the constant collapsing of waves rustling softly below. All the cabins were quiet, though it was still fairly early. Everyone was pretty wiped out. I knew I was. That day we’d had swim checks, cleaned the bathroom, cleaned cabins, played four square and Mofia, went swimming, did archery, had outdoor living skills, did scramble and played cards in the lodge before bed. The next night we’d be on our camp out, and I was pretty sure the good old traditional camp out at Makualla should be cake compared to the Saddlebag fiasco. I was hoping that Erin and Natasha didn’t get homesick like the night before.
At the last Chapel when the rock was passed to me I held it tight and took a breath. Every week I had wished for things like, “I wish this week goes smoothly,” or, “I wish I could get ahold of Nate.” This time I felt the warm weight of the rock in my hands, and admired the evening light bathing everything in a golden glow. I looked around at all the kids and the other counselors that had over time come to feel essential to me. I thought about how I was on the verge of leaving and how I might never be back. “I wish to keep finding places like this,” I declared in my mind, and passed the rock on.
On the very last night there was a big staff banquet- fish tacos, ginger ale, blackberry pie. It was good to be with everyone, without the kids. After dinner there was a slide show in Tayito and Hollywood presented me with the You Rock because she admired how I conquered my fear of kids. Later there was a party at Hobbes’ house- I drank beer and talked with Hobbes and Brian, Night Owl and Light Speed, but we were all pretty wrecked and passed out early. Brian had given me a ride there and in the morning his right shoulder was in terrible pain from the night before when he was running from someone during a game of tag, slid on the gravel and rolled, landing on an old skiing injury. Brian was also supposed to be my ride to Portland so I could catch a Greyhound to Eugene but suddenly our plans were shaky, seeing as he could barely shift gears. But we stopped by a friend’s house on the way back to camp and he picked up some pain reliever (ganja) and some coffee and we made our slow way back. He was managing most of the gears except for fifth, which was impossible. So whenever he needed to shift into fifth he would let me know and I would do it for him. He tried to hide the intense sharp pain he was suffering. I tried to remain calm and patient but I was racing inside with a restlessness to get going- I still hadn’t packed my stuff or cleaned out the treehouse cabins. When we got back, some people hadn’t left yet, to my relief. I was able to have really great goodbyes with Turbo, Hollywood, Maxx, Luna, and Feika. I packed up my junk, cleaned out the cabins in record time, said goodbye to Gravity, got my paycheck, helped Brian load up his stuff, and we took off around 3:00. We drove for a few hours, down Whidbey Island and witnessed some amazing fog, took the ferry to Port Townsend, picked up some food at a grocery store. We feasted on olive bread and hummus, plums and broccoli- so luscious, neither of us had eaten anything all day. After the sun set, we made it to La Push, and fell asleep immediately in Brian’s camper.
In the morning we hiked down to the beach, a place Brian had often gone as a kid. We watched the crazy waves fold over themselves and spread around the huge rock islands of strange shapes, with odd mini-forests of pine trees jutting from the tops. After driving a few more hours down the coast, we spent some time by a river in the Hoh rainforest. While Brian fished, I napped in the sun.
His arm felt a lot better the second day- I didn’t have to shift into fifth gear anymore, and he wasn’t wincing in pain so often. In Hoquiem we picked up some ice cream and I tried getting ahold of Nate with no luck. I’d talked with Nate about a week before and made plans to see him in Eugene on my way back to Chico. I was jittery with excitement about seeing him and happy that I’d gotten Scott out of my system so I could go back to focusing on Nate. In Portland Brian dropped me off in the parking lot of the bus station. Our last minutes together we spent in his camper, swigging wine and cracking up, hugging and well wishing. I got a picture of him sitting up in the bed, wine bottle in one hand and home rolled cigarette in the other, no shirt and grinning like he’d found his own personal heaven.
On the bus I thought of Nate waiting for me, only a couple hours away. I thought of Brian, with his parents in Yakima. I thought of my family, my mom in Ramona and my dad and sister in San Diego. I thought of everyone in Chico and its darkened streets, of Scott asleep in Everett. I arrived in Eugene around 3:30 am. The station was closed and I didn’t see Nate. I sleepily waited to use the pay phone, wondering what I would do if I couldn’t get ahold of him. And then he was there- head down, hands in pockets, sauntering towards me. I couldn’t comprehend him in my arms. We held each other and talked in his car in the parking lot and then drove to the Campbell Club. Nate stayed there whenever he spent a day or two in town, which was a huge house with four floors, like a hostel where travelers could stay and pay a small fee.
The next day we hung out around town, had coffee at Out of the Fog, and I saw the Cascade Forest Defenders office where I had left messages all summer. I developed some film, then we ate dinner at a restaurant. The day after that we ran some errands, checked out some hot springs, then drove to Fall Creek to meet up with some of Nate’s friends who were camping out there doing red tree vole searches. We got really lost on the crazy unmarked twisty logging roads and we drove around in the dark for hours. Finally we gave up and parked in an exposed rock quarry where the light of the full moon just spilled out over everything and hazy mountain ranges sprawled out as far as we could see. It was so utterly still and perfectly silent- just a blanket of nothing. Once we heard an owl faintly hooting. Other than that, just our soft voices as we filled our famished bellies with navy bean soup. And then to a much needed sleep in the back of the truck, wrapped warm in sleeping bags. The next morning in the light of day we found the camp easily, and I met Indie, Sap, Sparrow, Voice, and their slew of hyper dogs. I noticed Nate’s crew liked to pick camp names too. Sparrow had just found an inactive vole nest and Indie found an active nest. They were all very excited.
I was dismayed that by the second day, Nate and I had fallen into our usual patterns of behaving around each other and I was already getting annoyed by the way he was always teaching me how to do things. “Please trust me that I know what I’m doing!” I would plead. “And if I don’t, I will figure it out!” He would apologize and try not to do it, but he often did it without noticing. Being in Eugene I felt like I was just a visitor in Nate’s life, not really a part of it. Already I was missing Camp Kirby and the community I had left behind.
Back in Chico I was in a new house, a new semester at Chico State. Back to my recycling job. It took me a while to transition, to feel present. Every night I was having dreams of camp- my friends there, or surrounded by screaming kids or waiting in front of the lodge or watching the water and thinking in amazement, “I’m still here??” Most of me was still there.
In the evenings I would sit on the porch and try to make sense of my life. What had I just done? Who was I now? Where was my heart? What had I learned from my relationship with Scott? Should Nate and I keep trying? I had a lot of unanswered questions, but I knew one thing: I had created a new entity.
I had created Milo.
An unexpected couple of things happened as a result of that summer: One of the things was that Scott and I weren’t over. We’d parted ways in Chico, then had a very lovely goodbye in my treehouse at the end of the summer, but it turned out that saying goodbye became kind of our thing. After his plans for Central America fell through, he ended up back in Chico a month after I’d returned from Camp Kirby. Our relationship had something of a restart and the tension and disconnect we’d experienced in Washington seemed like a bad dream. The Nate/Scott/Serra triangle continued for a few months, although I could feel Nate and I losing our grip on each other. It was the beginning of the end for us. Not long after that summer he left Chico for good, moving up to Ashland, Oregon. Our romantic relationship had ended but we remain friends to this day.
Scott and I said goodbye again when he left on a long bike trip and then reunited months later when he joined Diana and I on a bike trip we were taking down Baja. In Baja we again said goodbye when Diana and I headed back to Chico and Scott continued biking through Mexico for the following year. We reunited again when Scott returned and stayed for a week with me and my mom in Ramona, where I was visiting for winter break. Again, a goodbye, when he left to visit Tim and his nieces in Everett. The last time I saw him was in Chico a while later- by that time I was 22 and a year away from meeting Benny, the boy I would eventually marry.
Another thing that happened was that summer became the first in a summer job trilogy that really helped turn me into the kind of person I wanted to be. The year after Camp Kirby I went to work at a truck stop in a remote area of Alaska for the summer. The following year I worked at the Campy Curry coffee shop in the Yosemite valley. The experiences I had from those three summers solidified me into a competent, adventurous, independent person. I once heard the phrase, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” When I think of that lonely 16 year old girl brooding in her bedroom, I’m proud of the person I’ve become and the risks I’ve taken. And I treasure every person I’ve met on my adventures. After the summer at Camp Kirby, Cassandra and Brian and I wrote a few letters back and forth but I never saw them again. But it’s ok- I let myself be changed by them, said thank you, and moved on.
One week ago I landed my dream job. After years of thinking about going to hair school, and then actually going to hair school, and then passing the licensing test, I got an interview at my top choice of salons in the city and was hired after performing a “technical”- basically a hair audition where I had to demonstrate my knowledge of some different services on actual people. Great! This is all happening! Just like I planned! Incredible! And then I thought, Oh shit, here we go…
I had one brief day of training where I just met the manager and we chatted about hair products and whatever else. The next day I had my first real shift. I had mentioned to my manager that color and bleaching services were my weak area and he promised he’d just have me do haircuts for the first few weeks until I learned more about color. So imagine my surprise when my one client for the day was booked as a “bleach/tone/haircut/style.” Way to kick things off. My client walked in, a tall and spindly man in his 40’s with shoulder length bleach blond wavy hair with about five inches of grow out. With the discreet help of one of my coworkers, I mixed up some bleach and painted his roots. After that processed I washed it out, toned it to a pale silver, gave him a trim and some layers, dried it, and flat ironed it as per request. He was out of there in three hours, glamourous and satisfied. Afterwards I felt wrecked but proud, amazed at myself. I had not for a moment let myself dwell on the possibility of failure and it was only later that I realized that I had actually never done that particular service before at school. I felt extremely lucky that it had gone well.
The next day I got to work and looked at the schedule. I had six clients for the day- one long cut and five short cuts. Phew! No color. The long cut was tricky because her hair was very long, thick, and tangled and I spent about 20 minutes detangling it. I had to be fast because I had one hour to cut her hair and then my next client was coming in. I finally managed to brush it, trim it, throw some layers in it with my feather razor, and blow dry it before my next client.
Next up was a nice older man whose wife had been pressuring him to get a haircut before their vacation. After his haircut I had five minutes before my next client, a man who was pleasant but nit picky about his hair because it was thinning on top and he was about to leave for a friend’s wedding. Next I had an 11 year old boy who told me he wanted his hair short all over but leave some bangs, which I thought was weird because he had a very short forehead. I kept looking to his dad on the bench for input, who was completely uninvolved. When I was done his dad looked at him and all he said was, “You sure you want your sideburns like that?”
My next client was a tall man in his 30’s with thick sandy hair. I had to have him slouch so that I could cut the hair on top of his head. My arms were tired from having to reach so high. My last client of the day was a guy who had a buzz cut on the back and sides and about nine inches of hair on top. He just wanted me to shave the short parts and take about half the length off the top- easy. But when he asked me to put in a clean part with my trimmers (in a U shape!) I hesitated then said, “Honestly I’m pretty new at this and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it perfectly, and I really don’t want to screw up your hair.” He said, “Oh…ok. Thanks.”
Every haircut I’d done that day, I felt like I was making it up as I went along and I was truly surprised each time when it turned out looking okay. It seemed like I’d been blessed with some amazing luck that might run out at any moment. Driving home that night through the wild streets of NW Portland and speeding along rushing freeways, I felt lonely and disoriented, homesick, thinking how incredible it was that at the end of my journey there was a sweet warm family waiting for me.
Yes, I felt proud of myself for getting through a challenging day but the bigger feeling was one of doubt, of inadequacy. I knew I had done a decent job, of course it was hard- it was only my second day. But I couldn’t shake the nauseating feeling of being not good enough. I felt like I was cowering in the giant wave of all the years of practice that it’s going to take to feel like I have a handle on this.
I don’t have good tools yet, just the basic stuff they give you in school. I’m not tall enough to cut hair comfortably, I have to strain and tiptoe through every cut. I’m older than my coworkers and yet have so much more to learn. And most of all, this isn’t school anymore. It’s not a delightful surprise that I have some talent- it’s expected. I have an intuitive sense about hair but my technique is still so lacking, especially because a lot of what I learned in school is not how it’s done in salons.
I felt seized by a sickening dread, the thought that I was going to have to go back there the next day and do it all over again. But this is my dream job, this is what I’ve been striving for all these years. It’s finally here! So why am I filled with dread? Suddenly I realized, it’s because I want this so much that I’m dreading it. Because I know I have to continue, I have to go through with it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. In the past, starting a new job has always been difficult but I have a mantra I can usually fall back on to lessen the anxiety: “This doesn’t really matter to me.” There’s always a nice little buffer of detachment, keeping my real self slightly separate so that I don’t have to care too much. I noticed myself start to do that with this job and I had to stop and say, “Uh oh. This does matter to me. I do care about it. I have to, hokey pokey style, put my whole self in.” This is a hard thing, and I can’t not do it. I have to follow through.
And then I realized that people all over the world since the dawn of humanity have had to face this, often to a much more drastic degree. The Native American going through a coming of age ritual. The actor starring in his first stage play. The doctor performing her first surgery. The new kid starting Freshman year in a different country. The professor teaching her first college course. Your education and training can often take you only so far, after that you just have to take the leap and embrace the crushing discomfort at being a beginner, at the bottom with so much mountain to climb.
After two days at my dream job I felt so envious of my past self, the one who just worked at Guero and spent time with her family and barely left her neighborhood. “Why would I ever leave that comfort to pursue this difficult thing??” I couldn’t imagine. Oh yeah, because I love it. Because I want to grow. Because part of being an alive human is pursuing challenges, strengthening the weak parts of yourself. Is that what they call “grit”? That ability to get through something tough, to come out stronger and smarter. To know that it will get easier. To realize that it’s the most cowardly part of you that resists growth and change- the fear of the unknown stiffening your reach, slowing your feet, closing your eyes.
Then I heard another voice gradually become louder. “How cool, you don’t know that much! That means you get to learn all this new stuff! That means you get to experience that amazing feeling of growing and changing every day of your life! That means your senses are alert and you get to stay young and you won’t get all dry and stale from not taking any risks! Savor the tender, raw delicacy of it! Savor your ignorance, your fresh wonder! The world is cracking open for you, let it crack you with it! Be broken! Be lost! Don’t be in such a hurry to find yourself! Be curious! Be unpredictable! Be open to possibility! We’re all babies in some way or another! Be a baby! Be proud to be a baby!” This is what the wise old Buddhist in me shouts.