August 8, 2012
A few days ago, I got home from a vacation on the coast of Maine. We spent much of the week sleeping in a tent, dirty and sweaty, exhausted from hiking and biking, rushing through 4-minute showers in public facilities that charged by the minute. We had hardly five spare minutes a day between climbing mountains, pitching the tent, making the fire, icing the cooler and all the other chores of camping. And I can say without reservation, it was one of the best vacations of my life.
I have spent a lot of time wondering why I love outdoors vacations. Why I am willing to spend my precious time off work carrying a heavy pack on my back through the woods or sleeping in a scrubby state park campground, using “rustic” public bathhouses or even, sometimes, pit toilets. Why I am willing to spend part of each day searching for ice for the cooler, cooking dinner on a junk-strewn picnic table, or waiting in line for a weak shower. I remember one trip when my family, woefully unprepared for rain on our first night out, ended up squatting for nearly an hour in the cramped vestibule of our tent while a thunderstorm pummeled the campground. We watched helplessly as our tent site turned into a puddle. I can still see the dog sitting next to me, shivering and muddy, submerged in 3 inches of water. “Is this my idea of fun?” I raged at myself. “Why do I do this?”
I think I have finally come up with the answer. Because more than I want my travels to be relaxing or even fun, I want them to be transformational. I want them to remind my family of the wonders of the world and of our place on this big, magnificent planet. And the only way to get that is to go outside and stay there.
During my nights in the tent, I devoured the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, one of the most perfect and amazing memoirs I have ever read. She chronicles her own transformation, from heroin- and grief-addled to fierce and wise, during an 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. For three months, she hiked, mostly alone, through searing heat, deep snow, terrible pain, intense boredom and constant deprivation. Almost anyone facing the obstacles she did would have quit. Most people would have considered it unsafe, even stupid, to continue. I know I would have. And yet, through that trial, she learned the most important lessons of life: that we can trust, on a fundamental level, that we are safe in this world; that it takes guts to allow yourself to feel fear; that it’s never too late for redemption; that the universe is huge and amazing and far bigger than our personal dramas; that you don’t have to figure it all out, you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
My tiny adventure in Maine was nowhere near as brave or harrowing as her journey. We spent our nights camped a few feet from our rental car, sleeping on a comfy queen-sized air mattress. We ate lobster dinners in restaurants and spent our last night in a motel, swimming in the heated pool. But we also climbed to the top of the tallest mountain in Acadia National Park, a four-and-a-half hour journey that left our almost 7-year-old daughter glowing with pride. We discovered a rock-strewn cove at low tide, its beach teeming with life — millions upon millions of barnacles and mussels and snails and undulating starfish. We scrambled around on piles of volcanic rock, tossed into a heap by forces so violent, so ancient, so much bigger than ourselves, that it’s impossible to imagine. For one week, we left behind our computers and our phones, the television and the news, and we remembered what a huge and marvelous world we inhabit. We remembered to look closely. We felt both the beauty and the indifference of our environment.
So I guess that’s why I put up with the stress and annoyance of sleeping outside. Because, every once in a while, I want to stop seeing the world through the lens of my own comfort and safety. I want to stop walling myself off from the world and be out in it.
July 9, 2012
“No unsolicited advice!” I felt confident and sure as the words came out of my mouth. The conference facilitator had asked us what ground rules we wanted for our time together, and this was my contribution. I’m sure it sounded odd to many of my peers, because what do we come to a conference for if not advice? But I was thinking about all the times I have shared my challenges with groups of strangers and been bombarded with well-meaning but useless advice from people who know little or nothing about my situation. There have been times when I have wanted to yell at a group of people, all huddled around me offering rapid-fire suggestions, “Get out of my face!” Surely, we would all have a better conference experience if we shared our stories rather than thinking up ideas for other people to do.
But not even an hour after I offered my ground rule, I watched myself raise my hand and offer the assembled group of more than 50 people some extremely unsolicited advice about media relations. As soon as the words tumbled out of my mouth, I realized my hypocrisy. Later that night, I caught myself breaking into another person’s conversation to offer a helpful (and surely unwanted) tip. I thought back to the two-hour bus ride to the conference center, during which I had insisted that a woman I barely know should learn Spanish. I even told her who she should practice with and that it would be “easy.” No matter that I have tried and failed for years to fit learning Spanish into my busy schedule. But it always seems easy when it’s someone else’s life you’re thinking about. Is the old adage true? The things that annoy you about others are your own faults.
I still believe that, in the vast majority of situations, especially those that involve colleagues or strangers, we should bite our tongues when we feel the desire to give advice. For me, advice from strangers (and even sometimes from friends and family) brings up memories of all the things I’ve tried that didn’t work. It treads over ground that I have gone over too many times before. And it is even worse if it’s given by a group of people. Then, it overwhelms me, makes me feel like a failure, like the only one who doesn’t have things figured out.
When I face challenges in life, what I want to hear most is, “I’ve been there,” or “I understand.” I want to hear the stories of other people’s problems, successes and failures. I want to know that I’m not alone. What I don’t want to hear is, “You should…” When I get bombarded with shoulds, I’m often left wishing I had kept my issues to myself. And when I think of all the times I’ve heard other people respond to advice by shooting down every suggestion offered, I realize I may not be alone in this feeling.
But I observed myself over four days at this conference, again and again, unable to restrain myself from offering others the exciting ideas I had for them. Surely, these ideas were too good to withhold. “Maybe I should revise my position on unsolicited advice,” I found myself thinking. But in the end, I decided the better lesson was to simply be more tolerant of foibles and weaknesses. To hold my own mistakes and egotism with kindness, and to forgive others their flaws as well. Never again can I label someone a know-it-all without seeing that, really, they are just like me.
The conference was held at a state park in the Georgia mountains, in a lodge set beside a spectacular waterfall. Even the most non-outdoorsy types could amble a short distance down a trail and stand on a bridge that straddled the top of the falls. Water roared over slick rock, but the wide bridge and sturdy railing meant it was hardly a high-risk activity. On my last morning there, I saw a middle aged woman cowering on the back side of the bridge, calling pitifully to her husband and grandson on the other side, who were enjoying the view. Her fear was palpable, even before her husband snapped at her and she said, “I thought I could do it but I can’t.” I thought how sad and pathetic it was not to be able to accept even this tiny bit of risk, to be denied such beauty because of an irrational fear. As I headed into the woods for a hike, I couldn’t see how we were alike in any way.
Later that night, having arrived safely home, I found myself facing what has recently become a rather intense anxiety about going to bed. My insomnia has been at fever pitch, and just the thought of my bed is enough to raise my heart rate and stoke my fear of what the night holds. All of a sudden, I thought of that woman — and realized she is just like me. She is afraid of a waterfall. I am afraid of my comfortable bed. We are both afraid of getting it wrong, of losing control, of not knowing it all, of being exposed and unprotected in a world where anything can happen.
June 21, 2012
The afternoon was sunny, crisp and flawless. I was in Boston for only the second time in my life. And I was trudging down the sidewalk on my way to the police station, feeling like the loneliest most forlorn person in the world. The night before, my well-used 4-year-old laptop had been stolen from the hotel where I was staying. I had carelessly left it on a chair in a hallway, and someone had picked it up, along with all the documents of my professional life and every last scrap of my personal information, including my tax returns. It was maddening because the computer itself was old and virtually worthless, so if the thief took it to sell, he was probably sorely disappointed. If he took it to steal my identity, he hit the jackpot.
I had discovered the theft just before bedtime, so on this sunny afternoon I was exhausted from a night of broken sleep. I was sad and disappointed that someone was unkind enough to steal something that meant so much to me (and, surely, so little to him), that I had been so careless, that the hotel staff seemed unconcerned, and that the police department refused to take theft reports over the phone — no matter how difficult that made my life. The police station was a good hike from the conference center where I had been attending meetings, and I got lost finding it, but I refused to pay for a cab to report my laptop stolen. That would have been adding insult to injury. Call me dramatic, but I felt like a tiny impotent speck in a big cruel world.
A theft like that, where you are not mugged or robbed at gunpoint, is disconcerting. It feels as if the item has vanished into thin air. You can’t help wondering if you are crazy, if you put it away somewhere and didn’t remember or if, maybe, you never had it to begin with. An item that seemed so solid and permanent in my life had simply vaporized. And the fact that I didn’t see who took it left me with nowhere to pin my anger and blame, no convenient scapegoat toward which to vent my emotions. So there I was, with no one to be angry at, instead having to face my own vulnerability. It was just a laptop — a laptop whose contents were backed up, even — but it was yet another reminder that, in this world, anything can be taken from us at any moment.
It’s a universal human experience to have things we love ripped from our grasp. And now I’m not thinking about electronic gadgets, but about our sentimental items, our homes, our jobs, our pets, our friends, parents, spouses — even sometimes, though I shudder to type it, our children. And in these moments when we are the victims of a capricious universe, we always have two choices. We can find someone to blame, we can wish it away, we can lock the doors and tell ourselves that people suck, that it’s a horrible world and we have to look out for ourselves. Or, we can remember that, in our loss, we are experiencing what it is to be human. Millions of people have felt this way before us — and are feeling this way right now — and we have the chance to build our empathy and compassion. We can vow that, the next time we see a person suffering, in a way small or large, we will try to be kinder or more helpful. We can vow to give them whatever it is we wish someone had given us in our time of need. I have promised that, from now on, whenever I find a lost item, I will do everything within reason to reunite it with its owner.
Now that the incident has passed, I remember the warm and friendly clerk at the police station who took my report, a wonderful counterpoint to the curt and officious types I had been dealing with all morning. I remember the acquaintance who sent me a personal note on Facebook, consoling me for my loss, minor though it was. I remember my mother texting me on the train to the airport, telling me she would give me her own laptop if it would make me feel better. I could feel her love surrounding me in that crowded, impersonal train. It felt like fresh air.
When I got home to Raleigh that night, I stood on the porch and watched the lightning bugs flashing in the trees. I wondered how I could have doubted, just a few hours ago, that this world is marvelous and magical. I guess that’s the challenge we face: Trying to make our minds big enough to encompass both the beauty and the cruelty, both the jerks who steal our laptops and the mothers who love us beyond reason. We cannot have one without the other, no matter how much we might want to. And we cannot fully experience the joy of living without feeling our vulnerability and powerlessness. The universe (or God, or Allah, or the Life Force, or whatever you want to call it) takes away the things we love, but it also gives us the ability to love, which, if you think about it, is pretty damned amazing.
April 30, 2012
For weeks, I’ve been debating whether or not to write about Amendment One. For those who don’t know, this amendment to the North Carolina constitution would make a marriage between a man and a woman the only recognized legal union in our state, forever and ever amen. The amendment is intended to target same sex couples, but it is written so broadly that it threatens the rights of unmarried heterosexuals, endangers domestic violence protections and could cause children to lose their health insurance.
There has never been a question about where I stand on this amendment. I am firmly, passionately opposed to it. But the voice in my head kept saying, “Who are you to talk about this issue?” I wasn’t raised by two moms, I don’t have a same-sex partner, and I don’t stand to lose anything if this amendment passes. And then I realized, that’s exactly why I need to talk about this issue. Because it’s time for all of us, no matter what we personally stand to lose or gain, to stand up and say that discrimination is wrong.
Nine years ago, my husband, Todd, and I were married by the Rev. Nancy Petty, a Baptist minister and a lesbian. Her sexual orientation had nothing to do with our choice; I just knew her to be a kind, genuine and understanding person. And in all the months we planned our wedding and wrote our vows and chose our wine list, I never once thought about the fact that Nancy was giving us something that the law did not allow her to have. In fact, it didn’t occur to me until last year, when Nancy publicly announced that she would no longer sign marriage certificates — not until all people had the right to marry.
I’m not sure why, but it was that announcement that snapped me out of my fog and made me realize it was time to stop thinking of gay rights as “someone else’s issue.” This is one of the great civil rights struggles of our time. It affects people we know and love, people who live in our neighborhoods, work in our offices, send their children to our schools. People who lead institutions, run businesses and volunteer in our communities. If we, the protected majority, are not willing to stand up for those people, who are we willing to stand up for? Who can we expect to stand with us when we need it? And if we are too blind to even know they are struggling, what does that say about us?
I wish I were writing to ask you to vote for some positive reform, something that would move us toward unity and equal rights. Unfortunately, all we can do right now is stop our state from taking a giant step backwards. But I hope this can be the start of a growing awareness that it’s time to stand up, in the way that people of conscience have done throughout history — people who spoke out against slavery, fought for the rights of women, demanded an end to segregation. Let’s not just vote on May 8. Let’s start making our stands publicly. And let’s start admitting to ourselves that silently allowing this injustice to continue makes us the perpetrators.
March 1, 2012
I had intended to sit down and write something about Davy Jones today. But, if my Facebook news feed is any indication, I am not the only one who had a childhood infatuation with Davy and the Monkees. It seems everything that needs to be written about Davy’s passing has already been written, every “Last Train To Clarkesville” pun used up. Would I be worthy of writing about my love for Davy Jones if I told you that, as a middle schooler, I started my own Monkees fan club? Or that I forced my parents to drive me three and a half hours to State College, PA, for a Davy Jones book signing and, while I was waiting in line for hours upon hours for my 30 seconds with Davy, they ran into him at a bar? Or that I talked my parents into letting me fly to Chicago for a Monkees convention, and I slept on a Chicago sidewalk to get a good seat for Davy’s talk? (I was maybe 13 at the time.) No? OK, then.
I think what I remember most about that time is not my love for Davy or the Monkees specifically, but the way music could carry me away. The way I would sit in my room for hours, rewinding the same song over and over on my Walkman, memorizing the lyrics and feeling absolutely transported. When I found the right song, all the middle school angst and insecurity receded. For a little while, I could forget all the boys who didn’t like me and my certain fate as an unpopular, unloved spinster. After all, not every unloved spinster knows all the words to “Randy Scouse Git.” (There’s a Monkees song I bet you didn’t know.)
Twenty five years later, one of the biggest regrets of my adult life is that I lost touch with that love for music. I’m 37, and I’ve been listening for far too long to the same Bob Dylan albums I discovered when I was 23. I’ve become so bored with my 15-year-old music collection that I don’t even hear it anymore when I put it on the stereo. Somewhere along the way, I became one of those people who knows nothing about music. The person who never buys any albums, and who has no idea who you’re talking about when you tell me about the show you’re going to see this weekend. The person who turns on some lame Top 40 station for background music in the car. I guess it was inertia, laziness, misplaced frugality. Whatever it was, I didn’t like being that kind of person.
That’s why one of my big goals for 2012 is to discover new music. Because it’s as important now as it was in middle school to transcend the mundane day-to-day worries of life. To find something that helps me remember the beauty of simply being alive. And it is great to be alive in a world that’s bursting with song. I am just getting started on this new endeavor, and I am far from a music expert, but I’m going to share a few of the songs that are making me feel like a middle-schooler again. And why don’t you tell me: What else should I be listening to?