Gear Down

When I enrolled in the program for which I am about to teach as a student years ago, I did so on a shoestring budget. Actually, shoestrings were the least of my problems. I’d gone into a National Outdoor Leadership School training the year before grievously underweight from two years in the Peace Corps, with an ancient pair of boots, a pack that no amount of strap-winching could coax to fit my frame, and a broken watch (also too big). I hobbled away from that experience with boot soles that peeled off like dead skin on the first trek, several missing toenails, and serious contusions on my hipbones from bearing the weight of my pack. Continue reading

Of Rabbits and Roosters

Acupuncturist Dianne Connelly once wrote “All sickness is homesickness. All healing is homecoming. Sharing moves me homeward.” If I had five seconds to identify a guiding ethos for my life, these words would tide me over until I could find my own. When I am sick, whether of heart, mind, body, or spirit, it is always because I am not at home within myself. When I find my way back, I feel better, and when I share the story, the sickness leaves, having imparted the lesson it came to teach. After this year, I don’t just feel this, I know it. I know it real hard. Continue reading

ME vs. the DMV

When I failed the easiest portion of my three-part Commercial Driver’s License Permit test, I cursed under my breath as furious steam curled out of my ears. When I learned that I would have to re-enact that morning’s three-hour round-trip drive south to take the failed five-minute portion of the test the next day, I wanted to throw myself to the ground and declare the Department of Motor Vehicles and all of its associates a bureaucratic bag of dicks (it’s my blog, and I can say “bag of dicks” if I want to). Then I remembered two things: Continue reading

Be the “Waa”

As the days leading up to my departure for the Pacific Northwest at the end of August dwindle, the to do-lists grow longer and my attention span shrinks. The urge to multi-task grows as voracious as Audrey Two, the carnivorous houseplant from The Little Shop of Horrors (though I make my payments in mouse clicks rather than blood). Can I study for my Commercial Driver’s License Permit test while posting a search on Craigslist for a headlamp to replace my old one (R.I.P., good buddy), while also making sure my online bill pay is airtight for the months to come? Thanks to the internet, caffeine, and sheer desperation, yes, yes I can. In the midst of such madness, though, there is a saving grace. Continue reading

The Pitter-Patter of Little Fears

The rain pelts down, pockmarking the ground and whipping in the turbulence of cold front clashing with warm like sheets on a laundry line. Everything is instantly ponderous with the weight of falling water and my body curls tighter on the couch, thinking of being out in it rather than tucked up in the warm dry of a house. Soon enough, out in it is very much where I’ll be, not playfully drenched by Vermont summer rains, but subject to whatever category of precipitation nature decides to throw at me, my co-faculty, and my hearty band of students during our fall expedition in the Pacific Northwest. Continue reading

Luck Runs Out…Sort Of

On a recent trip to visit family, I checked in via cellphone to inform my parents of my ETA, which was far earlier than expected. Of course it was. I take few breaks, and only then to empty one tank and fill another. Also, I “keep up with the flow of traffic”, which is to say, I speed. Not for the love of it, but with calculation and for the sake of efficiency. “One day your luck is going to run out, Juls,” Mom said, before hanging up with a weary sigh. By which she meant, I assumed, that one day I will get a speeding ticket sufficient to lighten my lead foot. Mom is right, and she is wrong.

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Ever After

“Did you bring your little recorder with you this time?” my grandmother prods, darkening the imprint of her “Always Coral” lipstick on the filter of her Virginia Superslim cigarette. Her voice is almost a whisper now, wearing softer and thinner with every year like a favorite cotton t-shirt. Still, she rarely hears others on the first try, and it is often necessary to yell.

“Yes, I’ve got it,” I say loudly, plucking at the frayed hem of my cut-off jeans and pivoting my wrist to conceal the swooping indigo lines of my latest tattoo. My voice recorder is in its customary place in the console of my Honda Accord/ gypsy caravan, ready to capture the fleeting thought begging to be woven into a tale.

“I think I’d like to try recording the story,” she says, her lips pursed in determination. “I think I’m ready.” Continue reading

Guns, Pawn, Ice Cream

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Visiting my childhood home in West Virginia, as I currently am, is a time of deepest pause. Here, the attributes and activities that define Adult Julie take a hiatus, while the Younger Julies, from the tween who brought a book to read at family dinners, to the outraged activist teen who marched for PETA in Washington, step eagerly to the fore. I know I’m not the first adult reduced to a huffing, stomping sourpuss because their parents watch Fox News at top volume and still don’t recycle, but the regression surprises me every time. I do yoga. I meditate, goddammit.

There is a restfulness in the rhythm of family obligations, but I am no less at odds with my southern roots than I became as soon as I emerged from the chrysalis of childhood. Fields of GMO wheat and corn ripple under the sun, destined for feedlots in the Midwest. For every friendly country smile, there are reminders like this

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to suggest that we are under siege, and no one is safe without their own trigger to pull. For every friendly wave, there’s a bumper sticker declaring that only a spray-tanned billionaire with delusions of grandeur can return our nation to its former glory. For every quaint roadside chapel, there’s a billboard broadcasting the equivalent of “Get God, or Get Out”.

I grew up spitting distance from Civil War battlefields, one of Patsy Cline’s old haunts, and a truck stop that proudly calls itself “My Pappy’s Place”. When I was young, I thought this corner of the world was heaven on earth, and couldn’t imagine planting my flag anywhere else. Sunday church and Monday night football were the fixed points of each week, and I had plenty of classmates who showed up to class smelling of farm chores. I’ll never forget Avery, the pale girl with corn silk hair who came in one day with a top lip swollen to the size of a golf ball thanks to a frightened bat that got trapped in her trailer.

I was the proud owner of a Huffy dirt bike and member-in-good-standing of the neighborhood gang. I bolted through the door after breakfast and was simply “out” until dinner. I was free to have the kind of misadventures and near-misses that season kids into unflappable adults, and I loved every minute of it. Things went sideways now and then and I still bear the marks, but that freedom was home. Sure, I got hurt, punched, scared, mad, insulted, angry, and lost, but it was all in a day’s work. There was discipline aplenty at home to remind me whose house I lived in and which God I had to get right with at week’s end, but I was never denied the secret world that would one day help fill the pages of my books.

It took a while for me to notice the racism and dominant phobias (homo and xeno) all around, but once those cows were out of the barn, they could not be coaxed back in. I began to notice the rips in the fabric, until the rips were all I could see. It is often a daily practice to remind myself of what remains whole during my return visits.

My internal compass tells me that these days the road home winds sometimes north, sometimes west, and sometimes across the sea. Still, I have scars on my knees from run-ins with barbed wire fences, the irrepressible tendency to smile at strangers, and an accent that crops up when I feel angry, tender, or tired. Each time I leave West Virginia, these things come, too. They are part of the home I have left and all the ones I make as I go, as is all that I leave behind. One more time, as my wild and wonderful beginnings recede in the rearview mirror, I pray  that when I return, it will be with a lot less grump, and a little more grace.

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