A Poem for Failing Achievers

Please help me down from this pedestal.

I’m afraid of heights.

And anyway, it’s cold up here.

 

 

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A Poem for Failing Achievers

Elegy for The Burning Gorge

It hurts that I don’t get to choose when I lived on this planet.

If I could pick when I was born,
I’d choose a time when the air was free from ashes
When the burns were caused by lighting,
That never giggles when it sets the blaze,
That comes in tandem with the rain,
To soothe and soften,
Cool and heat in balance.

If I could pick when I was born,
I would pick sometime when the trees still grew larger
Than anything humans could build.
I’d choose a time when I could be certain
That the oldest maples,
The ones there before my grandparents were born
Would be there when my grandchildren
Stood beside my grave.

If I could pick when I was born,
I’d choose a time when I could be killed by a mammoth
Or a sabre-tooth tiger,
Or a least a respectable bear.
Or a cold snap
Or a mushroom
Or a falling rock
Or a misplaced root
Or an infected tooth
Or a jellyfish
Or really anything except a handgun
Or nuclear war
Or human cruelty.

I’d take Nature’s cruelty any day.
She would have every right to throw me off her back,
And I would kiss her fingertips after the slap
In awe of her violence
And power
And beauty.
In that chosen time, I would not live to see her shackled
To see her beaten
To watch her gutted
With empty hands.

It hurts that I don’t get to choose
But see the home of my heart
Consumed by fire.

But we do not choose.
We only pick
What we can from the ashes,
And become the rain ourselves.

Elegy for The Burning Gorge

Molting

I am sorry for the snakes
In classroom terrariums
Who have to molt in front of everyone.

So many watchful eyes
Hungry for the half-dressed act of becoming,
Rushing it along with their gaze.

For I too have gone to parties
With my skin half off
And had to answer for myself
With a new mouth and old lungs.

Slithering sister, do not let them say you are sloppy.
Let them come to you in a week’s time,

And let them marvel.

Molting

Goddess Body

And the first time you realize that you are the largest girl in the room
The first time you know that you are the outlier
You wonder, when people see you in a line up, how they’d identify you from the others
The full-figured one
They’d say (politically correctly)
The chubby one
They’d say (unkindly)
The thick one
They’d say (lasciviously)
The heavy one
They’d say (through lipsticked teeth)
The curvy one
They’d say (politely)
The fat one
They’d say (without a thought)
Or deliberately
Hoping to reclaim the word

I’ve never heard anyone say it to me
So it’s probably not fair to complain about

But sometimes, in the waiting room, before the audition
I only have to look around to know that I would be the reach choice
The fun flavor that they saw to try out what it might be like
To have a curvy girl play the role
To see if it could be believable
In the context of the story
That the love interest
The daughter
The friend
The twenty-something
The girlfriend
The sister
The fairy
Could have a body like mine

Would the audience buy
That there is a 25-year-old
With hips that sometimes push the boundaries of dining chairs
With thick strong german ankles
With soft round cheeks
And cream drop breasts
And a strong low voice
And a zip-fast mind
And a tender heart
Who is loving and loved
Who is open and afraid
Who yearns and strains and questions and hopes
Like other 25-year-olds?

And could it be believed
That this imaginary woman
Could be the object of affection
Or respect
Or notice
Or honor
Or desire
Or interest
Or wonder
Of the other character?
The male one?
Who needs only have a penis to be worthy,
To be believed?

The answer, more often than not, is

                                                                             

                                                            No

 

No, she could not exist
Her body is a goddess’s
Her body is a mother’s
Or a queen’s
And her face is just a baby’s.
And we cannot reconcile her assuredness
With her body’s invisibility;
And her soul
We cannot place at all
Because it is too large and frightening to be tamed
By myopic men who strain to see
A story that could hold her wonder.

Goddess Body

The Tiny Work: Groping, Grasping and Saving the World

On my first ever trip abroad, I visited the Natural History Museum in London. If you’ve never been, imagine the private study of Professor Aronnax mixed with a storage room in the Tardis. My companions and I ogled fossils and a disturbing array of taxidermy animals, pinching ourselves when we stumbled upon Darwin’s pigeons, a real Audubon print and a dodo skeleton. There was so much to see and to learn at the Natural History Museum, though for me, the most memorable learning came not from a dusty stuffed animal, but from another museum guest.

We were clustered around a booth to examine some minerals. The volunteer at the table explained (in the delightfully dulcet tones of a Londoner) how each stone had been formed and invited us to touch them. Just at that moment, I felt two hands on my backside, each cupping a generous handful of ass. It was just a split-second, not even long enough for me to make a protesting sound. Heat rising in my cheeks, I whipped around to face a little boy, probably about 7 years old, and his mortified mother. She stared at me with reddened cheeks as her grope-y son’s attention turned to inorganic subjects. ‘Sorry!’ she whispered, and turned away.

I think I mumbled, ‘it’s okay,’ before trying to return to my examination of the rocks. I could feel hot, sickly shame rising up in me, emanating from the imprints of those two tiny hands. I tried to excuse it as I worried a chunk of fool’s gold in my palm: he’s just a kid, he doesn’t know. No one else in the crowd had even seen or noticed. No need to make a big deal. After all, he didn’t mean it.

And maybe that’s true. But even at seven, 16 years my junior, young enough for me to have given birth to him, he already had the power to make me feel dirty and ashamed with just a touch. He had already received the message that in this world, women’s bodies are playgrounds for men. His mother apologized, but I wish that she had turned to him instead and asked him to make the apology. I wish she had had the courage to take him aside and firmly explain that women’s bodies are not his to grab.  I wish that she and I had been comrades in making this a teachable moment, offering this boy the tools and understanding to wear his masculinity differently, to grow up respecting others’ bodies, rights and safety.

But we didn’t team up. We didn’t say anything. Instead, we both hid behind our shame and stayed silent as the boy reached for two big, round handfuls of pyrite.


 

I recently attended a conference session on “Building a Sustainable Life as an Artist”, led by the brilliant and generous Andrew Simonet of Artists U. Andrew encouraged us to clarify our individual missions and to set personal, professional and artistic goals. He  invited us to consider the skills we already have as artists–creativity, problem solving, making something amazing out of very little–and how they can serve us in building the balanced life we want.

As I walked out of the room, I was spinning this information around and around in my head. My mission. That seemed really important. What exactly am I here to do? How do I contribute? How do I stand against the onrushing tide of darkness, when everyday seems to get worse around the globe? How do I ensure that my net impact on the planet is a positive one? What if my destiny is to save the world?

Save the world. Okay. That’s a lofty goal. An embarrassing one to admit to, if I’m honest, because as Andrew taught us, it’s important to try to make your goals as specific as possible so that you can break them down into doable, tiny steps. Save the world is pretty general, and people have been trying to break down the steps for generations. Brilliant thinkers have devoted their lives to the task, trying permutation after permutation, plan after plan. So really, what can I do? Do any of my flailings and failings even matter?

I think this is my trouble with being an artist. It’s also my trouble with being a citizen of this Earth. Nothing I do feels big enough, important enough. I desperately, desperately want to matter, to have made a difference. I’m so focused on the intended outcome of my work–save the world–that I can’t see the tiny steps I’m making towards a positive future. And when the present moment is so terrifying, it intensifies the need to move faster towards the goal, to push harder towards more obvious progress. I have, at moments, allowed the smallness of my revolution to paralyze me. It has pushed me towards Netflix, towards the couch, towards the bathtub and the ice cream bowl. But when I do the work, the tiny work, the slow work, the one-on-one work, I lay the foundation of a future that I hope to look back from and chuckle, “Look how it all worked out”. And the tiny work needs to be acknowledged. Not just so that I can feel good about myself–although that sounds nice, and I’d like to do that–but so that I can keep moving towards the goal. Save the world.

The universe presents endless opportunities to do the tiny work. In my life, this is most often the chance to teach and mentor youth. For the last three years, I have worked with hundreds of students ages 2-18, mostly on theatre skills and creative drama. In every case, I have worked to create a positive, empowering classroom community in which all voices are valued and heard. The world hasn’t been saved yet, true, but I have helped the next generation of citizens to listen to one another, to say yes to different ideas and viewpoints, to work as a team. I have given them a taste of what’s it’s like to be seen and heard, making it harder for them to accept invisibility and silence. And I am proud of this work.

Since I claim to be proud, I’m not sure why I am so often ungenerous in discussing my career as a teaching artist. I talk about it like a consolation prize on the road to something more important, something that will change the world more profoundly and immediately. But the conversations we have with kids matter. Their learning matters. If I can see my teaching as a tiny step in my quest of world-saving, I can allow myself to celebrate what I’m contributing and to keep moving forward.

When the boy grabbed me in the museum, that was another opportunity for tiny work. His mom and I missed a chance to step forward towards the future we want for ourselves and our children. But I suppose, in writing this, I am reaching back towards that moment and using it to make this offer to all of you. There is huge, huge work to do. It really is life and death. But I can’t live up to those stakes in every moment. Instead, I suggest we take the opportunities that present themselves to do the tiny work, to teach and learn, to reach out and connect. Let’s inch things forward daily, so that when the big opportunities come, we are ready to grasp them with two open, reaching hands.

The Tiny Work: Groping, Grasping and Saving the World

50 Hikes: Wrap-Up


December, 2015. I’m sitting on the couch in Jenny’s apartment with a cup of tea in my hands. Our conversation has turned, as it so often does, to the meaning of our young lives. With the New Year fast approaching, resolutions are looming, and neither of us wants to miss a chance to profoundly alter the course of our existences with the perfect New Year’s goal.

We run through the commonplace options: Go to the gym more? Too boring. Write our memoirs? Too early. Be better at life? Too general. We’re running out of ideas and the tea is getting cold; perhaps it is time to let the resolutions go. Jenny idly flips through a book I’ve left on the table, one I picked up on a whim during my shift at the bookstore- Hiking Oregon: A Guide to Oregon’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.  The cover shows a verdant grove, replete with moss-covered stones, drooping ferns and a shy little waterfall, winking coyly from behind a tree.

“What if I do all of those?” I ask. Jenny loves the idea. We have both just read Wild, and are aware of the life-changing qualities of hiking excursions. She flips to the Table of Contents. There are 50 listed “greatest” hikes, along with another 30-or-so honorable mentions. It seems like a lot, especially for someone who dusted off their hiking boots only three times in 2015. Jenny wisely suggests I aim for 50 total, allowing for an average of one hike every weekend, with two weeks off for laziness. She even agrees to be my hiking companion for any excursion for which she is available.

Thus it is that 2016 is officially named The Year of 50 Hikes.


I never had a successful New Year’s resolution before my year of hiking. I gave up on so many good ideas by January 15th, unable to form a new habit or break an old one. I set out to do 50 hikes in 2016; I completed 42. Still, I’m counting this an unmitigated success; this resolution took me on a physical and spiritual journey that reshaped my relationship to the Pacific Northwest landscape, its history and my own human body.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of the hiking journey was the opportunity to explore so many of the distinctive landscapes this region has to offer. As my Instagram feed so beautifully reflects, these hikes encompassed coastline, desert, pumice field, temperate rainforest, river gorge and grassy plain. The variety of environments available within a few hours drive of Portland is staggering. Each one offers unique beauty, but the coastal hikes were my favorite; I love the smell of the ocean and the hardiness of plants and trees that refuse to give in to the punishing sea winds.

Each trail offered insight into the formation of this land I call home. The eruption of Mt. Mazama 7,700 years ago led to the the majesty of today’s Crater Lake. The land bridge over the Columbia River collapsed in the 1450s, but we still call our gorge-spanning bridge “The Bridge of the Gods” in its honor. The more I walked the trails, the more geologic time took shape around me. In the face of such tremendous age, my human life seems impossibly short and insignificant. To some, this might be discouraging. To me, it’s enormously freeing. When compared with mountains, my troubles are less than molehills. I’m just another animal scurrying across St Helens’ side–a momentary itch, a passing tickle. The sense of being small in vastness is a sensation I have come to know well this year, and to cherish.

As I became more connected to this landscape, I also learned to respect and admire the people who lived connected to it before my ancestors ever touched this continent. Again and again on my journey, I encountered the presence of Pacific Northwest Tribes in the names of landmarks, in museum displays and guidebook passages, and on the Makah and Warm Springs reservations. At the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington, I pored over hundreds of finely woven baskets, beaded bags and vests, intricately carved tools and other cultural treasures of the tribes of the Columbia Plateau. I was filled with wonder, admiration and sadness for the skilled hands that could weave so tightly, hands that held the knowledge of generations, hands that had their possessions, their home, their way of life ripped away. Throughout my year, I brushed up against the edges of the powerful civilizations whose lands were stolen to become my outdoor adventure playground. It kindled in me a desire to learn more about our Native brothers and sisters, not only as historical figures, but as important members of our nation and as leaders in the fight for environmental justice.

I often say that as an Oregonian, I have moss on my heart. At the end of this year of hiking, I feel more in love with the outdoors than ever before. After every hike, I returned to my apartment lighter, more hopeful and more alive than when I left. In the summer, when I was hiking most frequently, I experienced my body as a strong, powerful vehicle, able to carry me to remarkable places. I also felt more connected with my hiking companions, finding that conversation flowed easily over the rhythm of our footfalls. After a year of hiking, I can close my eyes and call up astonishing vistas–sunset over Crater Lake, the blasted vastness beneath Mt St Helens, the Milky Way over Cape Alava . It’s not overstating to say that the Great Outdoors have made me better, healthier, more whole this year. And they have asked nothing from me in return. In fact, spending time in nature has brought my attention to the many ways in which I actively contribute to the destruction of these landscapes I love. The Year of Hikes firmly reminded me of my obligation to care for our landscape and to reduce my impact on our planet. I must be brave enough to live differently  on the Earth, so that I will be able to revisit these trails in 10, 20, 50 years.

The last consequence of my resolution is the one I least expected: this blog. I’ve always enjoyed writing. The struggle to put words to what’s swirling around my skull is a challenge that I dearly love. It has brought me tremendous joy to craft these posts and to share the journey with you.

I don’t have a resolution for 2017 yet. There are ideas that are percolating, but nothing has risen to the surface yet, and I feel that to try for The Year of 50 MORE HIKES would be forcing it. Still, the hiking habit has formed, so I know I’ll be hitting the trail often this year. I’d love for you to join me. I know a lot of neat trails around here.


THE YEAR OF 50 HIKES

BY THE NUMBERS: 

Total Hikes: 42

Total Miles: ~156

Longest Hike: 10 miles

Top Five Hikes (In No Particular Order): 

Ozette Loop, Olympic National Park, WA

Boundary Trail on Johnston Ridge, Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument, WA

Cape Lookout, Three Capes Area, OR

Garfield Peak, Crater Lake National Park, OR

Mosier Plateau Trail, Mosier, OR

Companions (Thank you to each one of you for being a part of this journey): Alec, Jenny W., Rachel, Maddy, Grace, Nik, Dad, Sean, Emily, Zak, Becca, Madison, Mom, Alex, Nate W., the Bridesmaids, Morgan, Brian, Ted, Alexandra, Brent, Jenny B., Lisa, Matt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

50 Hikes: Wrap-Up

Sonnet MMXVII

I spent the last four weeks studying Shakespeare’s plays in Lenox, MA at Shakespeare & Company. It was a life-changing experience, and deserves its own essay on this blog. But since I am not yet ready to process and share all that I learned, I’ll start with a tiny sliver: a sonnet that I wrote for Inauguration Day.

On the 20th, at 11:30 EST, we gathered in a rehearsal room and spoke about our dreams for the world and the actions we would each take to reshape the future. I shared the poem below, a mourning thought that formed itself, unbidden, into a sonnet. To me, it is a reminder of the daily work that I must do and what’s at risk. It’s not cheery, nor reasonable, but I learned at Shakes & Co how powerfully urgent Shakespeare’s sonnets are when spoken from true desire to communicate. And I do want to communicate, desperately. So here it goes:

SONNET MMXVII

Do not line up to watch him take the stand,
And drink the poison dribbling from his tongue,
Do not line up to watch the flames be fanned,
And hear our nation’s death knell being rung.
And when the deportation plague takes shape,
And when our landscape bleeds her final drop,
And when we watch our constitution’s rape,
Do not line up and wait for it to stop.
Do not line up in hope of safer times,
For falling in ensures that none our coming,
Do not line up, though Freedoms turn to Crimes,
Stay out of line and let them hear our drumming.
For no orange devil will make my world his toy,
So long as my heart knows the beat of joy.

 

Keep fighting, friends. Let your voices be heard.

 

 

 

Sonnet MMXVII