"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Monday, December 26, 2011

Wild Purging

This holiday season has been filled with purging for me.  No, not of Christmas cookies - of belongings.

I had already planned to get rid of most of what I owned in June when I move west, but I have begun "purging: round one" as I slowly move out of my farmhouse and in with Oldman.  I'm keeping only what I absolutely need between now and June.  Everything else is either getting sold, given away, or tossed.

I was excited to get rid of excess . . AND I was quite surprised at all of the attachment I found when letting an object slip out of my hands for the last time.  I couldn't believe how hard it was for me to let some things go.  But when I began to look at all I owned in terms of what is valuable enough for me to put in the back of a truck and drive across the country, all of a sudden I was willing to let a lot more go.  Things I had kept around "just in case. . ." or "because maybe one day what if. . ." or for "oh remember when. . ." suddenly looked like unnecessary baggage weighing me down.

Things that have passed on from my possession, in some form or other:
  • The set of little, ceramic statues of a mariachi band from my honeymoon in Oaxaca, Mexico.  
  • All ten seasons of "Friends" on DVD.  
  • An old Hofbrau House beer stein from my dad's time in Germany.
  • The set of knitting needles I once thought I might learn how to use.
  • The shelf of my super-all-time-favorite fiction books (Poisonwood Bible, Ishmael, 100 Years of Solitude, Red Tent, Life of Pi, Anne of Green Gables, etc.)
  • Two baskets full of half-used shampoo, lotion, and other toiletries
  • All of my board games (Taboo, Scattergories, Balderdash, Trivial Pursuit, etc.)
  • Several pieces of past Halloween costumes (a pair of wooden, 7", platform heels with glitter, a rainbow mohawk wig, a grass skirt and coconut bra, etc.)
  • All of my eyeshadow (it's been literally years since I've put any on. . . I don't think I remember how)
  • My five and three pound dumbbells 
  • My GIANT book of astrology

In the end, it felt pretty great to take eight garbage bags to the dump, not including the three I took to the thrift shop, or all of things I gave away to friends and family.  However, I couldn't help but take this opportunity to ponder . . .

Why do we humans feel the need to surround ourselves with THINGS?  Other animals don't do that.  You don't see a bear setting up a little coffee table with books and a shelf with knick-knacks in her den.  You don't find a bird tucking souvenirs from all the flights she has ever taken into her nest to pull out later and reminisce.  And you certainly don't find ants hanging pictures and curtains up in their anthill.

Are my set of favorite paperback fiction books and my little statues from Mexico me?  Who am I without them?  Who was I before them?  Why have I kept them around?

I have been listening to The Grapes of Wrath on audiobook in the car lately.  I just got to the chapter when the Joad family is forced to take every last absolutely non-essential belonging into town and sell it, in preparation for their journey west, out of the dust bowl, during the Great Depression.

Tom Joad ponders some very similar topics in a beautiful, long paragraph that begins with "Who are we without our pasts?" and ends with the emphatic decision:  "Leave it.  Burn it."

I've taken your advice, Tom.  I'll see you soon out in the wide open west.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wild New Orleans

All I have ever seen on TV or in movies about New Orleans is hurricanes.  Like all of us, I have seen endless images of destruction and devastation.  And I have wondered, why do people choose to continue living here?  Is it not obvious that the sea is trying to reclaim this city?  Perhaps people don't belong here at all, unless they are traveling through on a swamp boat or catching shrimp to take back to some more stable land.

And then I finally visited the place myself.

It was a 75 degree, sunny day when Oldman and I decided to venture into New Orleans.  We took his mom's car just as far as St. Charles Street, where we parked and took the trolley.  The sunbeams reached into our open windows and the breeze felt more like May than December.

Before hopping onto the trolley, we couldn't help but stop at a little, psychedelic creperie/hippie shop near Loyola University.  We ate fresh crepes stuffed with mozzarella cheese, spinach, bacon, and tomatoes, then bought way too much incense at the hippie shop next door.  Before leaving, Oldman noticed that the stucco wall had a few grips, and the climber part of his brain went a little wild.  That boy will try to climb anything.

The trolley ride took us down St. Charles Street, past telephone wires and trees draped with endless, faded beads from years of Mardi Gras, past elaborate houses with two and three stories of wrought iron porches, past little shacks selling po-boys, gumbo, and jambalaya.

We hopped off the trolley in the French Quarter, and found ourselves on Bourbon Street.  In short, it was gross.  Block after block of sleazy sex shops and people drunk in the middle of the day kind of made us want to turn around and go home.  Luckily, Bourbon Street was not indicative of New Orleans as a whole, and we soon found some more appealing neighborhoods.

We wandered into what must have been the art district, and marveled at colorful local art and sculptures.  We stopped to hear a tune from a street musician with a kazoo and steel string guitar.  On the next block, more street performers - a five piece string band caked with dirt and facial hair, playing their hearts out with their trusty hound dog by their side.

We wandered into a very high brow antique store and gaped at the intricately carved pool tables, carousel horses, and a library with dark, oak shelves filled to the brim with tattered tomes inches thick.  We took silly pictures and stuck out from the stuffy, rich folks who strutted from case to case.

We visited Cafe Du Monde for the obligatory coffee and beignets.  It was crowded and touristy, and the beignets were really just funnel cake in a different shape.  But while there, we met Nadine - a waitress whom we found crying out back.  Upon further inquiry, we discovered that she is here from South Africa, working on her summer break.  She was crying because she had $220 stolen from her, which is the equivalent of three months rent back home.  We reminded her of what a blessing it is to be reminded that all is temporary, and monetary possessions can slip through our fingers at any moment.  We talked for awhile, until she was laughing and wiping away her tears.  We left her with a reminder of her beauty, strength, and wholeness - with or without $220.

To take a breather from the city, we walked up the levee to the bank of the Mississippi.  We sat watching the shrimp boats and steamboats glide lazily down the wide river, and shivered at the cool breeze coming off the water.

Upon recommendation from two men in a vintage shop, we trekked several blocks for dinner at a place called Adolfo's.  The bottom floor was a dark dive bar that already had live music playing at 5pm.  Since the upstairs dining room didn't open for half an hour, we ordered a locally brewed IPA and sat down to listen to the jazz singer/songwriter and his drummer drawl out some tunes.  An old woman sat up front, cigarette hanging from one hand, tambourine in the other, eyes closed.  She sipped her drink (whisky, I think) and hit that tambourine against the table as she bobbed her head to the music.  Was she in the band?  Is everybody?

When we finally took our growling bellies upstairs for dinner, we found a tiny Italian/Creole restaurant with checkered tablecloths and candlelight.  A brusque Italian waiter with a thick accent told us the specials and brought us some of the most delicious garlic bread I have ever tasted.  Even my Chinese, non-bread-eating boyfriend asked for seconds.  We started with a crab and corn cannelloni - a house creation recommended by our waiter.  Then Oldman had crusted tilapia topped with crawfish and shrimp in a cream sauce that he said was the best fish he had ever eaten.  I had alfredo pasta brimming over the bowl with plump, pink, fresh shrimp.

The day had been so perfect.  We only wanted one more thing.  Live music.  But where to find it?  We stepped outside of our restaurant and our ears were immediately filled with jazz from every direction.  We looked at each other and laughed.  Letting our ears be our guide, we followed the music into a place across the street, where we found a raised stage draping with Christmas lights.  A tall guitarist with a swath of dramatic hair across his forehead crooned out jazz tunes, while an adorable girl with too-short bangs sat singing harmony and playing the washboard, and a short fella with a fedora and a white buttoned shirt with rolled-up sleeves played the upright bass in the back.  We stayed for six songs and one beer, bought their record, and left for the next destination.

Letting our ears be our guide again, we glided down the street into a club with hopping brass music spilling exuberantly out the open door onto the street.  As we walked tentatively inside, a waiter was just placing an additional table for two right up front; he smiled and motioned for us to sit down - best seat in the crowded house!  This band was bouncing with energy and included a clarinet, trumpet, bass sax, guitar, drums, and sousaphone.  We ordered two rum punches and drank until we were hopping in our seats to the music and our faces were warm and red.

Exhausted and completely blissed out, we tore ourselves away and began the long trek back to the trolley stop.  On our way, we ran into two, voluntarily homeless bohemians sitting in folding chairs with typewriters on their laps and signs that read "POETRY ON DEMAND."  I stopped and inquired.  The man, who had a red turtleneck, brown corduroy jacket, and a thick French accent said, "You give me a topic, and I write a poem for you.  If you like it, you pay whatever you like."

We asked our new friend, Antoine, to write us a poem about wild travel.  Here is what we got:

Wild Travel
we want our roots
to spread across borders
         into their minds
we will be friends
for a second
          for a week
if you care
we'll travel you
with our hopes and questions
we'll enter your home
and call it ours
and you won't mind
cause you know 
we love you

Falling asleep on Oldman's shoulder on the trolley ride home, I thought back to my question about why anyone would want to live in this city, and I smiled a knowing, sleepy smile.  This place is bursting at the seams with music and don't-give-a-damn life, and gorgeous days like this could make anyone forget about hurricanes.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wild Newness

Fun fact about Oldman (my heretofore blog name for my boyfriend, because using real names on the internet weirds me out a bit.  He has the nickname of Oldman from a friend of his due to his ancient-feeling wiseness, and also because he can get cranky and jaded and complain about crazy young kids.): I am his first girlfriend.

What?  Yep.  You read that correctly.  I am Oldman's first relationship.   As you can imagine, this information was a red flag at first.  My over-thinking girl-brain ran through all the things that could be wrong with him.  I pictured bags of toenail clippings stored under his bed, strange habits of eating toothpaste or hoarding pet lizards, or membership to some kooky cult.  I quickly realized that none of those things were true.  I don't really have a good explanation.  I guess he's been quite shy in the past, and picky, and for whatever reason, it just never happened.  Whatever.  Who cares.

After my over-thinking girl-brain relaxed and I allowed myself to be in the present with him, it became quickly apparent what a PLUS this is!  No crazy exes to deal with (and if you know me, you know I've had more than my share for several lifetimes).  No falling in love with Oldman just to hear him say, "Actually I just realized I'm still in love with my ex-girlfriend/fiancee/whatever."  (Which is what I heard from the last three guys I dated before him.)  No relationship baggage whatsoever.

And he's not a 17 year-old who is just dating for the first time and making all of the necessary, sloppy mistakes.  He's a grown man with a life full of experience and wisdom, and 30 years of pent up chivalry just waiting to be unloaded on some lucky girl.  You better believe every door gets opened, every chair pulled out, and every heavy bag carried - and that's just skimming the surface of the way he tends to me.  (This is very new for a "strong, independent woman" like me - whatever that means.  Screw it.  I'm drinking it up.)

But the best part about this relationship thing being new for him is that it has become new for ME.  I think this may have been the only way that my jaded, run-through-the-wringer heart could have possibly looked at romance without a scowl.  It feels like I'm taking him to a city where I've been a hundred times before, and seeing all the sights with new eyes through his wonder.

I had no idea how many stories I had built up around relationships.  I had so many certitudes about what love was and was not, what being a boyfriend or a girlfriend was or was not, what being in a relationship meant or meant not.   (Certitude: a story that has been held for so long in one's mind that it has become unquestioned Truth.)  One by one, without even trying, he is blasting them away.

On our road trip down to Louisiana to visit his parents this week, I played some of my songs for him.  I have a few scratch recordings of songs I have written over the past several years, most of them inspired by some kind of pain in my life.  I guess I felt obligated to play them for him, and then to tell him the related stories of pain from my past.

As I was telling them, I could feel a knot growing in my throat.  My body was saying to me, "Stop.  Do you really need to tell these stories again?  Are they even true anymore?"  But I kept talking, spilling out all of my "And then this awful thing happened to me and blah blah blah."

I wanted to stop myself, but I couldn't.  It was like I was on autopilot.  I had convinced myself that he couldn't really know me without knowing these stories.  But that's like saying that the stories are me, and obviously they're not.  They just abstract words to describe past phenomenon.  And I see now how in the re-telling, I cause more pain to myself and to the listener.

He listened intently and patiently, saying nothing, holding my hand, rubbing my back, etc.  After a long period of silence after the stories were finished, he said, "I love who you are today.  Let's you and I take our long-held stories of past pain and not tell them anymore.  No more tragedy.  Let's write new stories together.  Let's start now."  Everything in my body relaxed, and the knot in my throat disappeared.

So I have been thinking about stories and certitudes, and how easy it is to allow them to define your life.  And I pose this question to you, dear readers: What stories are you dragging around behind you, convinced that they define who you are?  What old stories are limiting the boundaries of who you could be growing into today?  Perhaps it is time to stop writing tragedies.  Perhaps this holiday season, the best gift you could give to yourself is permission to be a new you, every day, and every day, and every day again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wild, Unexpected Love

Many of you faithful readers told me how much you enjoyed reading my mantox post.  I enjoyed writing it as well.  My mancation brought feelings of strength and wildness.  It helped me to remember who I am and taught me new things about myself.  It helped me to regain my dignity and find the gems in the messy past few years.

The longer I was single, the longer I wanted to be single.  I became intoxicated with being the owner of my life.  I had no one to answer to, no one to interfere with my agenda, no one to need anything from me.  I got quite used to be being un-vulnerable.  I was hyper-focused on moving west at the end of this school year.  I had no time for dating or even thinking about men.  I made it quite clear to the universe that there will be no falling in love while I am still on the East Coast.  Nothing was going to get in the way of my plan.

Then I met Johnny.  And the universe laughed.

I climbed with him at the rock-climbing gym, matched somewhat at random by a belay partner-finding website of which we are both a part.  Now mind you, I have climbed with several random people in the past year, mostly men, many attractive.  I have not paid any of them any mind other than to keep me safely on the climbing wall.  But Johnny was different.  He told me that he had taken a transformative road trip out west earlier this year, and so was planning to move west now and follow a life of adventure. Whoa.  Get outta my head.

We became friends on Facebook after that night, exchanged travel photos and stories, and shared inspirations over the internet.  The next time we climbed together, we shut down the climbing gym talking.  Then we went to get tea at a diner, and shut down the diner.  We talked for five hours until 3:30am.  This was not looking good for my mancation my friends.  Not looking good at all.

BUT!  He was leaving for Utah in a week, so there was no danger.  Right?  Right?  I opened myself up to him.  I allowed myself to become vulnerable in a way that I haven't done in a long, long time.  I did this because I thought he was leaving.  I thought it would be safe; I could fulfill a small need to be intimately connected with someone without having the pain and inevitable heartache of a relationship.  One week of long talks and long walks and then I'd send him off into the sunset with a custom-made mix CD.  A modern day tragic romance.  It would be perfect.

Then I left for PA over Thanksgiving, and when I got back, he was still here.  He was not leaving.  And it had a lot to do with me.  Shit.  Fear was my first response.  I felt my throat tightening and my shoulders rising up in tension.  I can't do this again.  Relationships mean sacrificing part of myself.  They mean pain and disappointment and never-ending compromise.  It's not worth it.  Why didn't he leave?!  He was supposed to leave!  I have plans!  I have it all figured out!  There's no room for a man!  Right?  Right?

He listened to these fears.  He heard them, acknowledged them, and then he blew them up like so many dandelions on a windy day.  He scattered them with one breath.  All of my carefully-constructed reasons and defenses that had taken 15 years and a dozen relationships to build up simply imploded.  No ceremony.  No drama.  Those stories of fear simply had no place to live anymore.

I have been spending my days and nights (which are all blending into one at this point) floating around in a serotonin haze.  Everything is fresh.  There is an newness where I was sure all was dead.  I feel like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, when she walks through the town to bouncy music and everyone sings and greets her.  I feel like Snow White when she walks through the forest and all the animals follow her.  I feel like Cindarella when she enters the ballroom and everything else falls away as she sees the prince.  I am stilly, stupid, corny, ridiculous in love (if you can't tell from my completely embarrassing and uncharacteristic princess metaphors).

I have written and rewritten this post many times.  I have deleted many versions of this story and am still not satisfied with the way it is written.  There seems to be no way to adequately write things like this.  There is no clever quip I can use to explain how this feels.  Also, there is a bit of hesitation in writing about love.  Why?  I have no hesitation writing about my glorious singlehood.  Why not my glorious love?

In the end, I decided to publish it for a few reasons.  This blog is about a journey to wildness.  I write about living wildly and uncaged here in the hopes of inspiring others to find that wild part in themselves; to step outside of the daily comforts of cars and offices and shopping malls and push their limits.  I would be hypocritical if I didn't admit that opening up to love again is my limit.  I can climb to the top of a mountain or hang from a precarious rock face without batting an eye (ok, maybe batting an eye a bit), but jumping into love and giving another person permission to know me in this way - well, you might as well throw me out into the middle of the ocean and leave me to the sharks.

I write this because I want to declare that I am choosing courage, and extend a hand for you to do the same.  I am choosing to live in a world where all things can become new, and love is always enough.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wild Exhaustion

I am busy.  Very busy.

Since I have returned from my road trip, I have been attempting to keep up an active life of adventure and physical activity.  I haven't wanted to lose the fit body and healthy endorphins I had going on through the summer.  This has meant rock-climbing one to three evenings per week, and taking weekend backpacking/camping/kayaking/otherwise adventuring trips at least two weekends out of the month.  Every now and then, I sprinkle in some yoga so I don't go completely insane.

In addition, I have moved into my third and final year of graduate school.  This means I am beginning my independent study phase; no more organized classes.  I am excited about the projects I am undertaking, but they require quite a bit of discipline, self-direction, and, well. . . time.

Planning my move west next summer takes a surprising amount of time as well, even though I am still many months away.  I am downsizing my belongings, dusting off my resume, working on a professional webpage, and researching possible locales, jobs, and cars.

Those three undertakings alone, along with seeing friends and family every now and then, are plenty to fill a girl's schedule.  But I haven't added work into the equation yet.  I have been working 50-60 hour work weeks and still not coming close to finishing what needs to be done each week.  I spend all day every day hearing "I need you I need you I need you" from all kinds of people at school - big and small.  I enjoy helping them, and of course learn so much from them in the process.  So I am not resentful about my time being in demand, it can just be exhausting.

I was not feeling wild.  I was not feeling free.  I was not feeling successful in any way - just worn out, sick, and cranky.

Finally, after a solid month of going to bed every night feeling like I spent my day doing 20 things poorly rather than a few things well, after spending my days with headaches and tense shoulders, after breaking down every few days in tears and pounding my pillows in misdirected rage, a good friend asked me, "When is the last time you had acupuncture?"  Holy cow.  Acupuncture.  I had forgotten.

I immediately made an appointment with my acupuncturist for a few days later.  I am so glad I did.  Thank God for acupuncture!

My brilliant acupuncturist listened to my rants and was patient with my tears.  She just listened and nodded and didn't say much, yet I felt somehow "held" by her presence.  Then she needled me with a powerful treatment meant to help release aggressive energy in the body.  As I lay on the table for over 20 minutes, alone in the room, with needles up and down my back, I drifted in and out of sleep.  I could feel my muscles relaxing, my mind slowing down, and my breathing deepening.

When she returned to the room to remove the needles, she spoke at last.  She said, "I hear how much you are trying to remain in control right now.  I have an image of two different ways to be in control.  One way is to hold on to parts of your life like this," and she made a claw gesture with her hands like this -->

"Another way to remain in control," she continued, "is to hold parts of your life like this," and she opened both, upturned palms, her fingers slightly spread, like this -->

"In this way, you are still in control because you are holding your life in your own hands.  However, it is a more accepting, receptive sort of control.  You allow some things to rest safely in your palms, and some things to fall through.  The control comes with knowing which things are which."

I immediately saw a climbing metaphor.  The worst thing a climber can do is try to hang on too long with claw hands, like in the first image.  The muscles of the fingers and forearms are some of the weakest in the body.  They are necessary to get quickly from one hold to another, but they are not meant to be used to sustain a long, difficult climb.  Good climbers know how to use other, stronger muscles like biceps, upper back, core, and of course legs.

I realized that I have been living my life like an amateur climber; forcing my way from one domain in my life to another, relying only on my ability to push and grunt and force my way through.  I have not been taking my time to plan how to best use my strengths and save my energy.

As if the universe wasn't quite sure I was getting the message, I heard it in yet another way today.  I was climbing with a friend at the gym.  He taught me how to boulder.  Using this new skill, I became sore quickly and intensely.  After just 15 minutes of bouldering, my inner knuckles were calloused and my forearms throbbing.

He said, "I think it would be a good idea for you to take at least two days off from climbing after today.  You don't build strength by climbing; you build strength by resting."

Ok, I get it, universe.  Time to rest.  Time to practice open-handed control, as oxymoronic as it might sound.  Bring on the turkey, family, and board games.  Just in time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wild Fear

Recently, I was talking with a friend about fear.  We have both recently taken transformative road trips out west.  We both have intentions to leave our current, urban/suburban lives and live in the wild as soon as possible.  We both have hesitations and fears about making this happen.  We spent about five hours discussing what in our lives has led us up to this point, what is currently holding us back from living as our wild, free selves, and what role fear plays in all of it.

What is fear, exactly?  Where does it come from?  Where does it live?  What does it look like?  How does it gain and lose its power?

In an effort to unpack these questions, we compared stories of times we have overcome fears in the past.  I told about overcoming my lifelong fear of sharks by swimming far out into the French Riviera, lying on my back, ears underwater, feet far above the ocean floor, melded with the surroundings and reminded of my interconnectedness to sharks and all of life.
He told of overcoming his social phobias and leaving the state of Maryland for the first time in his life to travel to the desert and live out of his car and tent.  We both told of overcoming self-consciousness and self-doubt by starting to rock climb.

As our stories unravelled over bottomless cups of hot tea at Silver Diner at 3am, I began to see a thread to connect them all. Fear is a completely created construct.  It does not exist as an observable phenomena in the real world.  If, as Emily Dickinson says, "Hope is a thing with feathers," then fear is a thing with teeth.  Cartoon ghosty teeth, to be precise.

An image of, "Boo," the ghost villain from Super Mario Brothers from old school Nintendo, came to my mind.  He was the one who would follow Mario in the dungeon levels, chasing ominously behind, sharp teeth bared, ready to bite Mario's little Italian head off.  But everyone knew that all you have to do to make him stop chasing you is turn around and look at him.  The second you look directly at him, he closes his mouth and hovers humbly and non-threateningly in the air.

In some ways, I always thought Boo was one of the scariest bad guys.  He looked so menacing.  I remember flinging the controller frantically around as I ranranranran as fast as I could with my little Mario, away from those teeth, away from those eyes.  Every now and then I would make Mario turn and appease Boo with a brief stare, at which point I would realize that I had stopped breathing and was way too into the game.

But in other ways, Boo was the easiest bad guy to deal with.  You needed no weapons, no mushrooms, no stars, no special powers.  You needed only to look him in the face.  Furthermore, he caused you to run faster and further toward your goal; the small amount of pressure his presence contributed from behind was a positive catalyst for forward motion.

Do you see where I'm going with this metaphor?  I bet you do.

With each of the stories that my friend and I told, I saw how the instant we made the decision to stop running from our fear and look it directly in the eyes, it's toothy jaws disappeared and it lost all power.  So with Boo and my friend as my teachers and my inspiration, I will remember to carry on in this wild journey, keeping my goal in front and my fear behind.  I need only to turn and look that ghosty fear in the face every now and then, pay it the attention and respect it deserves, and it will remain a friend, not a foe.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Wild Ocean

The stormy morning sea
I experienced the ocean in a new way this weekend.

It is November, and I hadn't been to the beach at all yet this year.  That has never happened before.  I grew up going to Virginia Beach each summer to visit the Italian side of my family.  As I got older and didn't always go on the family trip, I still made it to the water somehow, at least for a day, often with friends.  This year, I spent most of the summer tramping around the mountains out west, and just never made it to either coast.

I didn't think that this would be a problem.  I'm not really a beach person, per se.  I've always hated sand (ugh, the invasive, interminable, everywhere-sand) and truth be told, I'm not that crazy about swimming where snappy, bite-y creatures live.  I get cranky when I get too hot, and I really just don't jive with boardwalk culture.  So as the summer was coming to a close and I realized that I may live through my first year ever without seeing the ocean, I thought, meh. Oh well.

Then I got invited to a friend's beach house with a few other friends.  And one doesn't just turn down an invitation to a free beach house, even if one doesn't like sand.

So I spent the weekend in Sandbridge, a private beach in Virginia Beach, VA.  We braved the wild wind and stormy skies the first morning to attempt to watch a sunrise.  It was too cloudy to see the sun, but still a worthwhile experience.

Yes, those are cowboy boots and pajamas.  What of it?

There was an amazing phenomena happening that none of us had ever seen before, including the woman at whose house we were staying.  As the crazy waves came violently in to shore, the foam lifted off the top of each wave and blew across the sand, staying on dry land as the water receded back underneath it.  This left miles of shore covered in other-wordly looking, quivering foam.

Shores of foam
As I ran onto shore when we first arrived, I stopped in my tracks as I approached it.  The foam gets quickly covered in sand, which means that the ground basically looks to be a trembling, gelatinous mass, and I wasn't quite sure whether I could walk on it or not.  Turned out I could.

Even more fun than our morning field trip to the shore was our night walk.  Four of us left the house after a lazy day inside playing games, drinking tea, and stuffing our faces, for a walk on the beach in the dark.

Footprints in the sand
Beach-walking ghosts
As we walked and talked and listened to the roar of the waves, I felt a pull towards the water.  It felt silly and wasteful to be walking on the beach without being in the water.  I was wearing my five-finger shoes, but was fully clothed in cotton leggings and a skirt.  I stepped tentatively to the edge where the incoming waves are so thin they are barely noticeable on the sand.  The water felt so alive against my ankles.  I wanted more.  I ran straight into the water, skirt and all, and let the waves pummel me while I laughed out loud and yelled into the expansive darkness before me.

Building up the courage to go further. . . 
The water just kissing the bottom of my skirt. . . 
Even further. . .
Running into the cold water like a mad woman

The long walk back was a bit cold, it being November and I being soaking wet and all.  But I liked the way that my heavy, wet skirt slapped and clung to my legs, and the way my toe-shoes slurped in the cool sand.  

Something felt very strange and wild about being at the beach in the late fall.  I've only ever been here in the summer.  I guess, in a way, I was surprised to see that the ocean was still here.  In fact, not only was the ocean still here, but the crowds and scalding sun were noticeably absent.  It was the perfect, wild beach weekend for this non-beach-going girl.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wildly Cooped-Up


To say that I have been busy at work lately is laughably mild.

I have been working between 9 and 12 hours a day every day for two weeks now.  Parent-teacher conferences are happening, which means not only am I meeting with the parents of the students in my advisory, but managing all of the concerns that come out of all other conferences in the middle school (which are few, but immediate - like parents knocking down my door with an emergency about algebra placement or high school entrance exams or some other obviously life-or-death situations).  Also, we are being visited by an accreditation committee next week to observe our school after a year-long self-study which I have co-clerked, which means I am scrambling to carefully do a final read-through of a several-hundred page document with a fine-tooth comb.  Also, our middle school play is next week, which I am directing.

Every time I begin working on one thing, someone knocks on my door needing me for something else.  I have been having days where the first item on my to-do list gets started at 8:30am and not visited again until 4:00pm.  Days where it takes me 40 minutes to walk down the hall to turn my attendance sheet in to the main office because so many people stop me, needing me for something on my way.  And each of the things people need me for require me to do some kind of follow-up once I get back to my office.  Days where I need to use the bathroom for an hour before I get a chance.

I have not been rock-climbing for over two weeks.  (I had been going two to three times per week.)  I have not been to yoga in over three months.  I am losing out on sleep, not making time to read, missing quality time with friends, eating quick crappity-crap that is not healthy for me, losing muscle, gaining weight, and most importantly - I am out of sync with nature.

And yet, I'm getting so much done.  I'm doing a "good job."  I'm participating in this thing we call work that our culture rewards us for doing - the more, the better.  Tame my wildness.  Stick me in a temperature-controlled room and ask me to enforce rules that I don't necessarily agree with to pre-adolescents that I'd really rather just allow to run wild and free.  Tell me I can't dance spontaneously or accidentally let my brastrap show or swear.


Don't get me wrong.  I love my colleagues.  I love my students.  I even love their parents.  But this sitting in front of a computer indoors thing is killing me very, very slowly.  I let out my wildness in tiny bursts of steam, like a teapot with a broken whistle that lets out a long, breathless whine but is never permitted to scream full-blast, waking up everyone in the house with its unbridled squeal.  I need to let it out!!

I listen to Eminem on the way home just to hear lots of wildly offensive inappropriateness and remind myself that not everything is neat and tidy and smiley and clean.  I pierced my nose this weekend just to feel not so "pretty" and put-together; to add a little edge to what I see in the mirror.

Am I angry?  No.  Rebellious?  No.  Not in that teenagery-way where I'm trying to piss someone off on purpose or prove a point about my independence.  Most of my steam-letting is private, in my own car, anyway.  I'm not trying to make waves.

I'm feeling the pain of being disconnected from my ancestors - both human and non.  This is not how we are meant to spend our days.  Having spent so much time in the woods only makes it worse to be back here in these "little boxes."  I know what it's like to go to bed with the setting of the sun and rise with its arrival in the morning.  I know what it's like to bathe only in the river, cook only over a fire, and poop only in a hole in the ground that I dug with my hands.  I know what it's like to sense a bear ahead on the path or fall asleep to a coyote's howl or stumble upon a fat snake before breakfast.

I don't even know what phase the moon is in right now or how many leaves are left on the trees at the top of the hill in the woods behind my house.  These are problems - problems I feel in my deepest gut.  My body can tell that things are not right.

I need to get back into the woods soon before I pierce something else or start singing Eminem loudly in the hallway at school.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Wild Death

I began pondering mortality two weeks ago when my Uncle Bougie died (http://journeytowildness.blogspot.com/2011/10/wild-uncle-bougie.html).  I was talking about his death, and commenting on the fact that my grandfather died at this time of year just two years earlier, and my housemate said, "Yeah. Fall is a great time to die."

I was startled by this frank, unusual statement and inquired further into her meaning.  "Well, Fall is when many things on the Earth are dying or preparing to hibernate.  I've read that people or animals who are close to death often hang on until Fall so they can die with everything else.  When you die in Fall, the energies of the earth go with you.  It's a good time to die."  Both of my housemates are acupuncturists, so I am accustomed to hearing thought-provoking tidbits about the earth, the seasons, and the cycles of life from them.  Initially, I just thought, cool and left the conversation there in the kitchen.  But then, as the next couple of weeks unfolded, I began to see death everywhere.
  1. The next day at school, I found out that one of my students' dogs, whom I had been previously informed by her parents had been close to death for months now, had at last died.  
  2. A few days later, I traveled to New York state for my Uncle Bougie's funeral. . .
  3. As we were standing around the gravesite, waiting for the service to begin, we found out that Michael Mastraccio, another Italian relative in the same small town, had also died - just the night before.  
  4. Next week at school, I received news that one of our seventh grade girls would be absent from school for the next week because her grandmother, who had been seriously ill for months, had just died.
  5. The backpacking trip that I just returned from with my online meetup group had a last-minute change of plans because the leader's mother suddenly died two days before the trip.
As I was backpacking in West Virginia this weekend, I noticed that I was surrounded by death.  It was everywhere, and it was so. . . so - beautiful.

The brilliant colors that we associate with Fall are only possible because the leaves are dying.  Leaves are not made to stay green forever, and neither are people.  Eventually, we all change - several times - and die.  And while death brings sadness because those who are still part of life grieve the loss, it also brings gratitude, and even joy.

It is in the Fall when we often stop to actually look at the intricacies of a leaf, and a tree, and a forest.  We say, "Wow," with breathless awe, and travel long distances to gaze at the changing foliage.  It is after death when we often stop to actually consider the deceased.  We say, "He/she was so wonderful," with teary love, and travel long distances to remember together at funerals.  If there were no death, we might forget to stop and notice what was once alive.

So I am allowing myself to be taught by Fall.  I am being taught how to let go of what needs to die in my life, and how to be present with the grief that naturally follows.  And when the day comes, may I beautify the world with my death as I strive to do with my life, like the generous, dying leaves of Fall.

Wild Autumn

I am backpacking through Roaring Plains, West Virginia on a beautiful, sunny, Fall weekend.  I am overwhelmed with a sensuous symphony of Autumn.  Here, for your pleasure, is an October montage of the five ways with which we interact with the world. . .

The sights:
Brilliant red blueberry bushes

Autumn palatte

The sounds:
Trickling water on a rock

When the wind blows, pine needles fall and tinkle all around like a brief, delicate rain shower

The smells:
The earthy scent of rotting leaves and vegetation on the forest floor

Even the fresh bear scat adds fall colors and scents

The textures:

Crispy moss covering the ground in the bog
Thick, cushy lichen in the bog

The tastes:
A tri-colored carrot from the farmer's market that tastes like candy

Hearty lunch on the mountain

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wild Mantox

A friend of mine is about to undertake a major detox from sugar.  No cookies, no alcohol, not even fruit.  She was telling me about the process that bodies go through when they detox - from any substance, really, not just sugar.  It's not pretty.  There is a lot of pooping and cleansing and sometimes a person can get serious body odor as toxins leave.  There are intense cravings as the body rages fiercely to hold on to its last, gasping, dying bits of crap.

(I remember trying to cut out all sugars and carbohydrates in college once.  I dreamed embarrassingly detailed dreams about bagels and ice cream.  I got dizzy and nearly delirious while simply walking to class.  The sight of someone eating pizza made me borderline homicidal.  I lasted three days.)

So I'm sitting in the car, listening to my friend tell me about detox and the body pushing out toxins and that's when it hit me -

I'm detoxing from men.

I haven't had a boyfriend since April.  I know that's nothing compared to the bouts of singlehood that others have endured.  I have friends who have been boyfriend-less for so long that they feared an inevitable demise of spinsterhood or worse, cat-hoarding.  But six months without a boyfriend is the longest I've gone since before I was married.  About nine years.

I've been waiting for this moment; waiting for the day when I would actually, genuinely desire to be single.  Not putting in due diligence so I could get to the end of the tunnel to my destination, which is another boyfriend.  Not begrudgingly eating my vegetables so I can eat dessert as a reward.  But honestly, sincerely desiring this state of being unattached - indefinitely.  I like it here.  I feel healthy and clean, like a body getting rid of it's crappity-crap on detox.  I'm in no rush to metaphorically stuff my face with cookies again, no matter how good they may look.  (Not that there are any good-looking "cookies" in front of me at the moment, which makes this rush of self-possessed confidence a bit easier. . .)

Nevertheless, I am still experiencing some symptoms of man detox - mantox, if you will.
  • I have dreams about past boyfriends most nights, or even future boyfriends.  (Last week I had a dream that I fell in love with a hot backpacker dude in a wheelchair and he was my dream man in every way.  Weird.)  This happens even though I spend very little conscious thought time on the subject during the day.
  • I have realizations about mistakes I have made in past relationships right smack in the middle of teaching a class, or merging on the highway.  ("Oh!  That's what he meant when he said . . . It all makes sense now.")
  • I have sudden inexplicable cravings for boyfriend-y things like hand-holding or pushing each other in shopping carts and stupid stuff like that.  And then they're gone.  They rise and fall like waves inside me.  I just watch and know it will pass.
  • I feel healthier and stronger in my body.  I'm not compromising my sleep or meals or exercise for some chump who is making demands on my time.
  • I have a clear mind.  I have been fascinated to see what has come up in the absence of a man to fill my head and my weekends.  It takes and unbelievable amount of mental energy to be in a relationship.  That is all freed up now for me to think about whatever I want.  And whatever-I-want is becoming more interesting every day. . .
Review: Detox is a process of expulsion of build-up ickiness in the body.  Mantox is a process of expulsion of built-up drama in the relationship part of the brain.  Both can be painful.  Both can be cleansing.  Both are temporary.  This *mantox is a temporary, enjoyable vacation from men - a *mancation, if you will.

*Both of the terms "mantox" and "mancation" are copyrighted material.  You may use them, but you have to send me $4.27 every time you do.  Or jalapeno chips.  I love those.

The end.  Or the beginning. . .

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wild Italian

This is the flagpole outside of the Sons of Italy club in Sayre, PA, where I went for my Uncle Bougie's celebration of life ceremony this weekend.  This is also the club where my grandfather's celebration of life ceremony was.  And the club where my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary party was; where I sang "Wind Beneath My Wings" for a teary audience of Italian seniors when I was fourteen.  And the club where my grandfather called Bingo and my grandmother served pizza every week for forty years.  He would make his rounds, telling inappropriate jokes.  She would practice her Italian with little Lucy in the kitchen.

I love being Italian.  I am a few other ethnic backgrounds as well, but as Dr. Malfi says on The Sopranos, "When you're even a little bit Italian, it crowds out everything else in your genetic history."

The sights I see as I look around the club are warm and familiar.  I know these people.  I am related to most of them, whether I know how or not.  The DiSistos, the Sopranos, the Mastracchios, the Cocchis.  The men stand in small circles with their hands in their pockets, jingling change.  They have round noses, thick fingers with gold pinky rings, white hair that contrasts starkly with their leathery dark skin.  The women - both young and old - have layers and layers of makeup, meticulous hairdos, and coordinated outfits.

The rotund, balding bartender slugs out another glass gallon jug of red wine onto the wooden bar.  Frank Sinatra plays in the background.  It's always Frankie.  I see Jimmy Alexander and hear, once again, the story of how he introduced my parents to each other almost forty years ago.  I love that story.

The gloved servers set small, styrofoam bowls of iceberg salad with italian dressing in front of each person.  It's always the same salad.  My grandfather used to pay me a quarter to eat mine.  Soon they will bring out the chafing dishes of baked ziti, meatballs, sausage (both hot and mild), and roasted potatoes.  There will be large bowls of extra tomato sauce and parmesean cheese from Italy on the buffet table.  There will be overflowing baskets of fresh Italian bread in front of each person; much more than necessary.  When we are stuffed beyond capacity, they will place small dishes of Neapolitan ice cream in front of us.  We are Italian.  This is how we grieve.

The beer and wine continue to flow.  The belts begin to loosen a notch.  The stories of the "old country" roll out through thick accents and mouths full of pasta. The uncles excuse themselves for their fifth cigarette of the night.

In a particular moment that seems to stand still among the noise and bustle, my chin resting in my hand, my belly full, taking in old Mattia's stories, I feel frozen in place.  I realize that Bougie was my last relative from Sayre.  His wife, my great-aunt Jeanette, is in a nursing home there but will probably be moved soon.  This service is likely the last time I will ever be in Sayre; the last time I will eat this Sons of Italy dinner.  I breathe deeply and make an effort to frame the moment in my mind.

I am proud to be Italian, even just a quarter.  It is a wild heritage for a wild people.  I feel myself getting teary, but before I get too sentimental, I hear my grandmother's voice in my head, "State zit!  Manga!"  (stuuta-zeet. maan-ja)

Shut up and eat.

Wild Uncle Bougie

Last week, my great-uncle Bougie died.  He is pictured here (center) participating in one of his favorite pastimes - gambling.  He was not sweet or kind or tidy or moral.  He was wild in every sense of the word.  I loved him for that.  If there is any relative with which I can credit the inheritance of my rough edges, it is him.

My earliest memories of Uncle Bougie (whose real name is Albert DeSisto) are clear in my mind.  They have a sharp, almost electric feeling to them, unlike the oceans of vague, tepid memories of childhood we carry in the back of our thinking.  They zap and zing into the forefront of my mind so vividly I can almost smell the cigarette smoke.

I remember him yelling a lot.  Yelling at the TV.  ("Goddamn president's an asshole!  What the hell is the matter with him?")  Yelling at his bookie on the phone.  ("Goddamn you, Andy!  That's it!  Don't ever talk to me again!  Shit.")  Yelling at family members. ("Why you gonna do that?  Hell, that's a stupid idea.")  Yet there was always something soft under his yelling that he could never quite hide, like the creamy insides of a cannoli squeezing out from the hard shell that can never seem to hold it.  Yelling at the TV really just meant that he cared about the state of the world and wanted for it to be better.  Yelling at Andy never lasted long; they were best friends again the next day.  And yelling at family was often followed by a deep laugh, straight from his gut and erupting onto his face with a contagious joy that kept everyone from holding a grudge.

He scared and fascinated me at the same time.  I remember playing in the fancy sitting room (which all Italian families have) while my parents would visit in the living room.  I would stare in wonder at the shelves and shelves of antique treasures he had, listening with one ear to the profanity and laughter coming from the next room.  Sometimes he would come in and try to play with me.  Even as a little girl, I sort of knew that he didn't really know how to play with kids, but I could tell that he loved me.  He smiled and slipped me $20 bills when I was only five, whispering "Don't tell your parents."

He had cut off the top half of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand in a machine accident at a lumber plant in his twenties.  He was animated when he talked, to say the least, waving his hands and arms around for emphasis.  I would stare at those stubs flying frantically around, mesmerized, following them with my eyes like a cat follows a fly.

About four years ago, he found out that he had a mass in his lungs.  He told nearly no one, and chose never to seek treatment or even to find out if it was cancerous.  About a year after that, he asked if I would write his obituary.  I didn't know about the mass then, but I could tell that he was thinking seriously about his mortality.  It took three more years for that mass to turn into full blown lung cancer and spread throughout his body.

Through the process of writing his obituary (which ended up reading more like a eulogy), I found out many more wild things about his life.  He lied about his age, forging a fake birth certificate to enter the navy at age 16.  He traveled all over the world on ships, working as a cook and a baker.  He crossed the country on Route 66 with a friend, once pissing his friend off so gravely that he kicked Bougie out on the side of the road in Oklahoma and told him to walk.

At his funeral this weekend, I actually enjoyed myself.  I usually despise formal ceremonies like weddings and funerals.  I'm not a very traditional girl.  I get antsy in church pews, and nauseous when I sense fakeness or empty ritual.  For Uncle Bougie's memorial, I didn't have to sit in a church pew at all (which he would have whole-heartedly approved of), and the simple, 15-minute graveside service was honorable and genuine - complete with a 21-gun salute and taps.

The best part, however, was the ceremony afterward at the Sons of Italy club.  There was no empty emotion.  People spilled over with story after story of Bougie's humor, steadfast friendship, and eccentricities.  I loved that this man, who was not at all the pinnacle of "rightness," was so deeply loved in life and so wildly honored at death.  It gave me hope.  It was a grateful reminder that life is indeed more than a list of your "good" and "bad" deeds.  It pays to live large.  It pays to be wild.  Thanks, Bougie.  I hope you're having a wild party and winning every bet, wherever you are.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wild Samantha

Women often describe themselves based on which Sex and the City character they are most like.  The four women provide a fairly accurate sampling of female archetypes to choose from.  Over the years, I have identified with everyone but Samantha.

As a writer, I have always had a bit of Carrie in me.  Like her, I write to analyze my life and ask why people behave as they do.  Like her, I have made questionable relationship choices in the past, despite my desperate desire to cultivate a healthy, lasting one.  (Getting rid of Aidan, anyone?  How stupid can you be?)  I also, unfortunately, spent some time as a smoker in the past, and I am still a lover of my own, funky sense of style.  Yes, I love me some Carrie Bradshaw.

The successful career I have been grateful to build has given me a point of identification with Miranda as well.  She has gotten several promotions and knows how to work with her money.  She complains that men are often intimidated by her power.  I get that.

The last time I was actually watching and following the show was probably four years ago.  At that time, I was most like Charlotte.  I wanted a kind, strong man and a family.  I was borderline obsessed with babies, and I spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to look "pretty."  Like Charlotte, I have gone to some ridiculous lengths trying to score a permanent man situation.

Samantha, however, has always annoyed me.  She avoided commitment, shunned marriage, and laughed at her friends' endless relationship dramas.  She flitted from man to man (and sometimes woman), flirting, having fun, and collecting attention.  She lived alone.  I judged her as shallow, fake, and lonely.

Last night, my housemates had Sex and the City on TV, and I sat down to half-watch it while I was eating dinner.  I was shocked at what I noticed.  I related to almost every line of Samantha's, and Charlotte annoyed the snot out of me!  It was like I was watching a whole different show, except it wasn't the show that had changed, it was me.

I saw Charlotte as clingy, needy, and stuck in one co-dependent relationship after another.  I thought she was trying to use babies to distract her from the fact that she isn't the strong woman that she knows she can be.  I wanted to scream at her to rip off that pretty little dress and get dirty in the woods.  What I had previously storied as authenticity now looked like insecurity.

Samantha, on the other hand, suddenly seemed so strong to me.  She owns her life.  She belongs to no one.  She does what she wants, when she wants, with whom she wants.  She doesn't look back in regret.  She laughs in the face of upset.  She doesn't need anyone to "complete" her, yet she enjoys intimacy and connection with many along the way.  What I had previously storied as shallow now looked like strength. 

The thing that will never change about me is my tendency to change.  I'm sure that I will make many more rounds of these and other female archetypes.  I enjoy trying them on like costumes; walking around, seeing how they fit.  This Samantha archetype has been stuffed in the back of my closet for many years, gathering nothing but dust and scornful looks from me.  I think it's time to take it out and wear it around town for a bit, don't you?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wild Food

What it is about farmer's markets that makes me feel wild?  They do not offer wild animals, big mountains, unexpected dangers or adventures.  They take place in suburbia, which is the environment that is most antithetical to wildness.  Suburbia is planned, landscaped, safe, and sanitized.  I often hear jokes about farmer's markets being the required accoutrement for trendy, hip, white people.  I am aware of this stereotype as I pull up to the market in my high-efficiency car covered in love-the-world bumper stickers, step out in my crocs and ripped jeans, and tote my reusable shopping bag and patchwork hippie purse from stall to stall.

This is the first time I have been to my local farmer's market in months, simply due to busy weekend plans.  I have been looking forward to this Sunday opportunity all week.  I am surprised to notice my bodily reaction as I finally arrive at my anticipated destination.  The sight of piles of fresh green beans and barrels of awkwardly-shaped eggplants spilling over stops my breath in my chest.  I feel my feet grounded to the earth and I have the urge to roll in the tomatoes (I don't).  I hear the bluegrass band harmonica wafting from the other side of the market, and a little girl with huge eyes hurls a grimy hand blindly up to a table above her head to swipe a cucumber.  I smile and hug myself a bit in the chilly, early Autumn air.

Perhaps my feeling of wildness actually comes from the knowledge that I am right in the middle of un-wild suburbia.  Something feels slightly rebellious about these "blemished" apples and thin, crooked carrots.  As if the carrot is jabbing itself out into the world with a "Take that, produce section!  I will NOT grow perfectly round and fat for you!  These are my curves and divots and I love them."

Or take, for instance, these crazy things:
Have you ever seen them?  Me either, until today.  I stood puzzled over this bin for a few moments before asking the farmer what they are. 

He replied, "Paw-paws.  They are a local fruit that Native Americans used to grow."  His eyes glinted and he picked one up to show me.  "Feel this."  I do.  "See how soft it is?"  I nod.  "This one will taste like vanilla custard."  He closes his eyes for a moment as if lost in a private fantasy.  I shift a bit uneasily, waiting for him to return to me.  His eyes pop open.  "You just slice the skin open and let it slip off gently.  Then scoop out the line of seeds and eat the rest with a spoon."  He presents it to me like a treasured gift that he has made just for me.  I take it.

"How come I've never seen them at the supermarket?"  I ask, a little worried that this might be a stupid question.

He laughs.  "You'll never see these at Safeway!  They don't ship well.  Best to just pluck them off the tree and let them get soft on your kitchen table for a few days."

And that is when I get that familiar, chest-tingly feeling of wildness - the same one I get when I have an unexpected wildlife encounter in the forest; like I am in the presence of something holy.  This fruit is all about the moment.  Nevermind shipping across the world like bananas or mangoes.  This round, squishy teacher forces us to eat her right where she grew.  She refuses to have it any other way.

Go on with your wild self, you crazy paw-paw you!