"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

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.