To Tumble

Last night my friend JohnRoger sent me a picture. It was 1am and I was in the middle of last-minute grad school homework submissions so it was a much welcome distraction.

 

I haven’t seen JohnRoger in four years. When I lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, he was one of my nearest and dearest friends, and when I left, he continued to be—in a more distant, mutual understanding sort of way. I moved to South Korea to teach ESL and he went to Alaska later on. But there was a short time in between when we crossed paths again.

 

JohnRoger is a “grip” (he has probably received a promotion by now) in the filming industry. From the little I know about the industry, this means he gets to actually hold/grip the camera during filming. When I returned from teaching ESL overseas, I could not find a full-time job to save my life, and so ended up waiting tables, substitute teaching, and eventually even succumbed to $5.25/hour at Starbucks. . . for a month.

 

This was an interesting time in my life. I lived with my parents, made a total income of $9,000 in one year, and pretended to be 21 again—spending my evenings after waiting tables at a local winery and restaurant bar-hopping and dancing the night away with my very young server friends and the college kids that lined the cobblestone downtown Main Street. It was not awesome making $9,000 in a year and it was not awesome being underemployed—but it was awesome having a not-so-steady schedule and being able to disappear for weeks at a time if I so chose. Which I did.

 

JohnRoger contacted me during this time to let me know that he was working on an independent film in Chicago, Killing Poe, and he had room for a couple more Production Assistants if I was interested. What he really meant was that he couldn’t pay me, but understood this was just the type of random opportunity I would take part in—because why not drive to Chicago for a week, stay in a college dorm, rub shoulders with a few A-list actors (one of whom was a James Bond girl!!!) and avoid real life for a while?

 

Of course I went. And I convinced my family friend Stephen to join. Six hours and a disgusting amount of melted Twizzlers later, we made it to Chicago. Stephen and I let each other think this was a “networking” experience totally worth our time and lack of income. He actually owned camera gear and had a possible future in film to go on. I, on the other hand, was just trying on another alternate career for size. I collected names and numbers of directors while Stephen looked on, both impressed and a bit envious of my networking abilities. We drove to Home Depot about twenty-seven times a day for needed supplies for the film crew, ate a lot of pizza, worked 18 hour days for free, and wondered if our own future in film-making would one day be a reality.

 

It wouldn’t. I did get invited to be a stand-in photographer for a talent luncheon. I took great pictures of the A-listers and then proceeded to lose every last one of those pictures when my computer crashed.

 

At least not any time soon. Stephen and I drove back to Missouri and parted ways, myself back to my parents’ house and himself back to southwest Missouri. A month or so later, JohnRoger let me know they were wrapping up filming and I was invited to the final days and the Wrap Party. Of course I went.

 

I could not convince Stephen this time around that this may be our big break so I went solo. Aside from JohnRoger, no one really cared that I was there. I was a Production Assistant and I was the only one that wasn’t actually a film student or in the industry in anyway. It was pretty apparent I was a tagalong there for the adventure of a pretend future career in filming, but everyone was kind anyway and at least appreciated having someone to make the Home Depot runs.

 

The night of the Wrap Party, JohnRoger, myself and a handful of other crew decided to pull an all-nighter. The Wrap Party didn’t last very long, and as one of the photographers had a loft apartment in the city, we decided it best to move the party to his place. I don’t remember much of what happened that evening. I don’t think it was anything incredible and it wasn’t a crazy-drunken evening of loud music and dancing. It was more like. . . trying desperately to stay awake because we didn’t want the end of this adventure to really be here.

 

At one point, one of the film students, Kyle, decided that we should drive to Lake Michigan to watch the sunrise.

 

Obviously yes.

 

This part, I remember very clearly. I remember piling into a rust-bucket fifteen passenger van with not enough seats for everyone involved. I remember a pile of half-asleep bodies. I remember the taste of stale whiskey breath that only comes from staying up all night but not realizing quiet yet it is morning and now time to brush teeth. I remember tumbling out of the van onto the beach, wading into the water, and standing with our arms around one another as the blinding orange ball crept into the horizon.

 

That is the picture JohnRoger sent me. He sent me us. He sent me our silhouette standing in the water, facing the sunrise on Lake Michigan.

 

And here is why I needed that picture. Here is why I needed to be reminded of that adventure—that moment. It is because I have been in Columbia for one year and 131 days. It is because I have lived in this shoebox apartment for one year and 131 days. And I have worked for GC for exactly three years, come May 15. That is longer than I have ever worked for an employer ever in my life.

 

And I am antsy. My apartment is adorable and I have a thousand birds in my backyard/parking lot and my wonderful boyfriend lives close and I work with some mostly pretty fantastic kids . . . but I am antsy. Everything in me wants to live on beans and rice for as long as it takes to buy a one-way-ticket across the world and stay there. Or a one-way-greyhound across the country and stay there. I haven’t left the country in three years and I feel adventureless.

 

A long time ago, I drilled a well in Africa. And I taught English in South Korea. And I built trail in Vermont. And I rebuilt homes in New Orleans. But that was a long time ago and this is now. And now I haven’t left the country and I live in a shoebox and I feel stuck. It feels nice to talk about drilling wells and helping orphans and blazing trails and living abroad. It does not feel nice talking about a system I believe to be very broken. It does not feel nice to watch my kids make mistake after mistake and feel entirely powerless in helping them to crawl out of the mess they have become to realize the beauty and power that they are.

 

But that picture reminded me of something. It reminded me I didn’t have to leave the country to get there. To the sunrise. And I didn’t have to change careers either. It took getting in the van and tumbling out. It took deciding to stay awake.

 

Back in the day of my first ever ‘real job’ as a house mom to eight teenage girls in a group home, we got in the van and tumbled out often. Sometimes I took them on back road ventures for up to three hours. We would roll the windows down and blast my mixed CDs and eat bags of laffy taffy while they read the corny jokes aloud to me. Sometimes we stopped to moo at cows and sometimes we snuck out late at night with flashlights and buckets and waded into the spring and caught crawdads. Sometimes we rode a mattress down the stairs and sometimes we moved all the furniture in the house and put on roller skates and pretended it was a roller skating rink. Sometimes I let them stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning to wax the floors with me and brought them extra large cappuccinos to school so they could stay awake during class. Sometimes we took the van “off-roading” and searched the fields for deer. Sometimes, we carried a very heavy canoe over our heads, through the fields, and over the chain-link fence to put it in a very tiny pond only to learn there were “no boats allowed.” And sometimes, we tried to pole-vault over hay bales with broomsticks.

 

I don’t do any of that with my kids now. I make sure chores are done and homework is complete and meds are passed and rooms are clean and then I do my paperwork and I go home. Maybe that is why I feel antsy. Maybe I need to stay up later and re-introduce the sunrise to me tech-addicted kids.

 

Maybe I need to remember that all it takes is choosing to get in the van—and then tumbling out, at just the right time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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33

Today is Flag Day.

It is also my birthday. When I was younger, my mom would excitedly point out the American flags displayed on our neighbor’s porches and various city buildings and exclaim,

“Look, Rosie! Everyone is putting their flag out for your birthday!”

I believed her.

It was not until an embarrassingly old age that I realized the flags were not for me . . . but you better believe I still pretend they are J

I have a tendency to measure my years not by when the new year begins and the old ends, but by my birthdays. I realize that most humans, especially women, are not very keen on celebrating birthdays the older they get. But I am a millennial and therefore a special snowflake and different from all other women in this way. . .

I freaking LOVE birthdays.

There are a few that stick out quite clearly in my memory. On my tenth birthday, my mom threw me a surprise party. I was in 3rd grade. I came home to all of my closest third grade friends sitting stadium style on our stairs, screaming HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!  as smiley face balloons (smiley faces were the theme that year) floated through the magical birthday air. We proceeded to the local outdoor pool after cake and ice cream and spent my favorite birthday in the sun.

On my fourteenth birthday, I got into one of the worst fights of all time with my mom—for no other reason than I was fourteen and a teenage girl and that is to be expected from angsty, hormonal, middle school girls who do not yet understand the wisdom and unconditional love of their mothers and the endless sacrifice they will give until their dying day.

On my sixteenth birthday, I got to invite my entire church youth group and then some over to our house for a Sweet Sixteen party. I don’t remember many details except we ended up watching Face Off, and my not-official boyfriend at the time was angry with me because my mission trip crush from Indiana, a young man five years my senior, had driven six hours from Indiana to surprise me on this special occasion.

On my nineteenth birthday, my boyfriend planned a surprise party for me as I had explained to him that my very favorite birthday of all time was my tenth because it was a surprise party. We got into a fight the day before my special day and he cancelled the party. He then proceeded to tell me that he had a surprise party planned for me, but cancelled it.

That was my least favorite birthday.

On my 30th birthday, I spent the entire day in a fifteen-passenger van with a 21-year old young man I had only just met—my co-leader for Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. We were hauling a trailer in a caravan of four vans headed to Raleigh, North Carolina for the summer, where we would be leading trail crew. I had spent the evening previous at a crew leader party/birthday party and had narrowly escaped making a few entirely stupid decisions. I was exhausted, hung over, and not thrilled that I was spending the big day—my thirtieth birthday—in a van for nine hours mid exile to the south.

When we finally made camp for the evening somewhere in Pennsylvania, I called my older sister and broken down, sobbing hysterically—“I just always thought I would be married with children living on a farm with a dairy car and a pick up truck by nowwwwwwww. Or at least the married part!!! I’m old and I’m single and I have nothing to show for my life and I’m sad and I’m lonely and what have I dooooooooooooneeeee!?!?!”

She reminded me that she was also single and also four years older than I.

My 32nd birthday was right up there with my 10th as far as quality of special day goes. My roommate/bff/work wife Steph planned a horseback ride in the morning and a brunch afterward with all of my favorite humans. We kitchen danced and broke an Olaf piñata and the current love of my life, Braden, showed up with a dozen roses and gifts and a card and. . . wrote and performed a song for me.

He had only known me for a month at the time—actually less than. The song was not intended to be played for everyone present—but my roommate was persistent. He sang. I cried. My parents missed it because they were outside so I had him re-perform it for them via private concert moments later. They were mostly creeped out by this young man they had just met serenading them with a fairly intimate love song. . . but a year later I’d say he has their approval.

And my 33rd?

Braden and I went downtown and took a shot of Patron at midnight—the first alcohol we ever consumed together—a year ago when we drove from Steelville to downtown St. Louis and back again the same evening to retrieve my misplaced ID.  And then? Sitting on the courthouse steps downtown opening a midnight birthday gift. A pile of freshly printed, hard copy pictures of all of our favorite moments over the last year. Moments with he and I, my roommate and I, my nephew.

And a letter and a poem that were truly the sweetest words I have ever read. I don’t know that I have ever before been seen this way by other person. Really seen.

Soul seen.

I had a professor in college who was also my advisor and my mentor and my life coach. He often told me I needed to not beat myself up. He saw that when I failed or fell short I was brutal to myself. I would sit with my head hung and talk for sometimes hours about how I messed up and it’s my fault and I’m not working hard enough or smart enough or doing what Is should be doing and shame on me.

Not much has changed in that way. I am still hard on myself. I still assess and re-asses and over-assess my life and legacy on a daily basis and wonder if I have done enough and well enough.

I can’t get in to grad school.

I can’t get in to grad school because my GPA is a joke because when I was in college I never in a million years planned to go back to school so I didn’t care much what my GPA was. I cared that my life was overflowing with coffee and late night conversations and road trips and star gazing and camping and lazy days at the river. And it was.

But I can’t get in to grad school.

And that is okay. Because if I want to get in, I just have to take about fifty classes to boost my GPA—but I can. It is okay because I don’t need to get in to grad school to have a joy-filled 33rd year.

Life is weird.

I thought I would be on a small patch of land on the edge of town by now—in fact, I think I write about this every few years because the years keep passing and I still don’t have that patch of land and kids and oak tree and husband.

But I do have a job I believe in. I get paid to eat popsicles in the sun and hike on Sundays and cook delicious meals and love teenage girls and try to convince them that they are more than their past and that working hard is essential to a joyful and intentional life.

I also get paid to trim trees in city parks and learn about tree ID and buff up because I have to run a weed whacker for a couple hours at a time.

I wrote a freaking book.

And yes, I am bragging. Because it’s my birthday and I can. Because it’s my birthday and I’m 33 and I’m still single and I don’t have biological kids but I have MY kids and I don’t live in a tent anymore and that makes me sad a lot of times but I can look back and know that I did. And I can tell the story time and again about how I lived in the woods and built trails and it was really the best time of my whole life.

I am never going to hide my birthday. I am going to write it on every calendar I see every single year. At 40 and 50 and 60 and 70 and 80 and 90 and 100 and beyond. Because even though my hips are growing and I am seeing wrinkles and veins and ‘blemishes’ I have not before seen—I am still young. I am still young because I choose to be. I will still climb trees and skip rocks and eat cotton candy every chance I get.

I am 33.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Apology. A Promise.


Dear Children in DFS, Foster Care & Residential Programs,


On behalf of the entire social work system, on behalf of every case worker, social worker, Guardian Ad Litem, Psych Nurse, Therapist, Psychiatrist, Behavioral Aide, School Aide, Behavioral Interventionist, and every other mental health worker you have ever interacted with during your stay in residential or outpatient “therapeutic” program placements—



I am Sorry.



I am sorry that today I saw your face on the internet because you are in jail with a $10,000 bond for possession of a controlled substance, theft, and resisting arrest. I am sorry you are pregnant and homeless wandering the city streets high on meth. I am sorry you are pregnant with your fourth child from your fourth lover and will be living off the government for the rest of your life because we felt it more important to teach you not to curse than how to use a condom or get a job.

I am sorry you don’t understand that it is unacceptable to not attend school because we didn’t make you go. I am sorry we watched you cut your body with whatever you could find and called it “coping” until you bled so much the carpet was stained with your suicidal blood. I am sorry that we let you punch us, perforate our veins with your teeth, give us concussions, pull out our hair, throw us down the stairs, and cover our bodies in bruises and lacerations. I am sorry that we let you assault us, and did not press charges. I am sorry that we cannot press charges, or defend ourselves in a court of law, because we have signed documents to protect your privacy.

I am sorry we placed you in a cold, cement, six by six foot room and injected tranquilizers into your backside time after time when we felt our verbal and physical restraints would no longer suffice.

I am sorry we have labeled you. I am sorry we call you oppositional defiant when your parents do not know how to say “no,” and then proceed to add ADHD and any other words that mean we can put you on mood stabilizers, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. I am sorry we have pumped you so full of medication we have stripped you of your personality. I am sorry we felt it more important to have a controlled classroom than children with feelings and creativity and vigor and heart.

I am sorry we have allowed you to believe you may do as you please, live as you please, harm as you please, as long as you are not yet eighteen years of age.   I am sorry that we allowed you to believe if you continue to fail we will continue to catch you.

We will not.

We will not catch you. One day no one will try to wake you up seven times in the morning to get you to work on time. One day no one will cook for you when you are hungry, and clean up your mess when you don’t feel like doing it yourself. One day when you hit someone, they will press charges and you will end up behind bars. One day when you curse at someone because you are “triggered”—you will lose your job and your ability to provide for yourself and your children.


We will do better.


We will teach you more. We will teach you how to cook and not just how to preheat the oven. We will teach you about healthy lifestyles and the importance of getting outside. We will teach you what it means to look outside yourselves. We will take you to places and show you lives of others who have hurt just as you have. We will expose you to people who are also in pain. People who are hungry. People who are damaged. People who think they are beyond hope.

We will guarantee that when you leave our facility it will be not because you were too difficult or “have utilized all available resources,” but because you are ready to go. Because we are sure you will succeed beyond what you ever thought possible.



I promise that we will not only speak for you—we will help you to find your voice.


One day the world will know. I hope you believe it to be true. And if you don’t, one day you will see for yourself. There are half a million of you. In the system. Much of the world does not know you exist. Much of America does not know you exist. They do not know your stories.


I promise we will tell them. 

You Are Brave


Sitting around the campfire, I listened to your story.

The moon was bright and we were shivering, huddled together as close to the flames as we could get. You told me what happened. You told me what he did you to—for all those years. You told me you didn’t understand. You didn’t know it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t normal. But one day you learned, and one day you spoke up. Now you don’t see him anymore. Now you are getting better. You are healing.

I told you that I hope you know you are more than your past.


You are brave.


You came to us wanting. You came to us feeling you had nothing to give—you had given all you could and all that was left was a traumatized shadow of what once was. You can never unsee what you have seen. You can never forget. You watched your best fall beside you, never to be awakened again. You watched them fight alongside you, with you, for you—but you came back. They did not. You came to us hoping.

I told you that I don’t understand and I probably never will, but I am grateful for the pieces of your story you have shared.

You can do this, you know. We know you can.


You are brave.



I know you will never feel whole again. Not really.  Not here. You will grow and bloom and stretch. But a part of you was lost with her that you will never get back. And that kind of loss is the hardest kind—the kind with no understanding. We want to know why and we do not. We never will. I’m sorry for your loss and I’m sorry those empty words are said to you repeatedly and offer no solace at all. The only way up from here is to look outside yourself. . . but you know this.  

You are stronger than you know.


You are brave.




What brought you here? Who I see is not who I remember. He was bright. He understood his worth and valor. He had a dream and fought beyond reason to achieve it. He did not allow failure to dishearten him—he allowed it to remind him to get up one more time. He is still within you, that man. Every now and then I see glimpses of him.

You are more than you have become and I hope to God you find him again. You can. You will.



You are brave.





Thank you for saying to me what no one else would. Thank you for challenging my beliefs, my worldviews, my lifestyle. Thank you for living beyond the cowardice label I bestowed upon you. Thank you for coming home. Thank you for recognizing the power of wonder—though terrifying it may be.

You are wise and you live with intention, seeking Truth always.



You are brave.


Sometimes You Get Bit by a Copperhead

The other day I left the hospital in a wheelchair with a big, bearded, burly man kindly pushing me to our vehicle, then carefully and tenderly placing me inside, due to I was incapable of standing on my own. My foot was swollen to about three times its normal size and although in quite a bit of pain, I was grinning from ear to ear.


See—it’s funny because—I always assumed that if I were to ever leave a hospital in a wheelchair with swollen feet and a big, bearded, burly man was the one behind the chair, it would be because I had just given birth to our firstborn child . . .


But no.


At thirty-one years old I was not leaving the hospital in a wheelchair post-childbirth with my beautifully bearded husband. I was, in fact, leaving the hospital post venomous copperhead bite to the left foot with my supervisor escorting me to our 1998 silver suburban. Headed back to camp. Where I live in a tent. As the oldest camp guide, affectionately referred to as “Marm.”



Life is full of surprises.


A copperhead bite to the foot being the most unexpected and least welcome surprise to date—I am grateful for a fantastic story if nothing else.


Whilst clearing rocks from around our bonfire ring pre-snake bite, one of my supervisors, “Three,” asked me in the best way he knew how, what exactly I was doing as a Camp Guide at thirty-one years old. Through a series of roundabout questions I finally responded,



Are you trying to ask me why and how I am single, thirty-one years old, and working as a camp guide in the middle-of-nowhere Missouri?


Yes, he admitted, that is precisely what he was trying to ask. “The simple answer,” I said, “Is because I want to be. I am single and thirty-one years old and working as a camp guide making 50% of what I could be making because I want to be. This is where I want to be and what I want to be doing—so I am here. And I am single because I choose to be.”




I have spent the majority of my life making excuses.  



I shouldn’t get married because I witnessed a quite unhealthy marriage for the eighteen years I lived at home. I will never be financially stable because I keep working “meaningful” jobs where I make just enough to scrape by on. I can’t do this or that or all of the above because I am not strong enough. Because I am physically the weakest link in my family and always have been. I can’t travel because it costs money. I can’t speak in public because I am terrified and I am bad at it. Because the only way I passed Speech class in college was by video-taping my speeches for the professor after passing out every time I attempted to speak in front of the class. I can’t facilitate high ropes because I can’t get to the top of the course without shaking with fear and sobbing once at the top. I can’t sing or play sports like ultimate Frisbee because Tomlinsons are writers and piano players and teachers not singers or athletes. I can’t keep moving because what if I never settle down and what if I am alone forever and what if. . . all of my eggs die?!!?



If there is one truth I have learned within the past month and a half here in Steelville, Missouri it is this:



A life full of excuses is no life at all.



There are about a million and one reasons it doesn’t “make sense” for me to be here. Missouri is not my favorite place to live. It is my least favorite. It is hot and humid and swimming with venomous snakes and spiders. I miss Vermont. I did not grow up learning how to camp or build a fire or ride a horse or tie a knot or build a trail. I almost failed my university speech class due to I was terrified of speaking in front of a crowd of more than five. My current income is lower than it has ever been. I am thirty-one. . .



But this is what I chose.
And the hot and humid and spiders and snakes builds resilience. And the not knowing anything of campfires or knots or high ropes makes the new knowledge all the more empowering. And the fear of speaking in public and the fear of heights makes the accomplishment all the more victorious. And the lack of money forces financial awareness and good stewardship. And yes, I am thirty-one years old. I am the oldest camp guide here—the oldest employee here second only to the director. And yes, I am single. And yes. . . my eggs are dying. . .




But there is a reason as I left that hospital in a wheelchair I was grinning ear to ear upon realizing the irony of the situation. And it was not because I was smiling so I would not cry. And it was not because I was high on pain medication (they didn’t give me any). 




It was because I realized in that moment there is nowhere else I’d rather be.


I have spent many years wishing for something different. Discontent when alone. Wondering at what could have been. Making excuses for why life had turned out the way it had or what could be better. But here I was—left foot swollen with copperhead venom (not pregnant swollen), being escorted by my bearded supervisor (not my bearded husband), to our 1999 suburban (not our Subaru outback), en route to camp (not to our very first home). . .



And I was elated—because this is what I chose.


A life without excuses. At a camp. At thirty-one. With copperheads.


Highs, Lows and Epiphanies: A Year in Vermont

On trail crew we have a tradition of “de-briefing”—quite frequently. We gather, circle up, hold hands, and share with our crew the highs, lows and epiphanies we have had throughout the week. We do this in order to keep a constant line of communication open with our peers, but also simply to better know those we are living and working alongside.

Due to Sunday being my last day as an official Vermont resident (at least for a season), my roommates and I, after spending the evening at House of Tang and inhaling a Scorpion Bowl complete with an Everclear volcano—which, by the way, I highly UNrecommend—very traditionally circled up to complete a final debrief.


A year in Vermont, almost to the day: Highs. Lows. Epiphanies.


My low was a lot of things? I laughed as I said this aloud to my roommates, remembering the numerous traffic tickets, the being homeless, the bank card being hacked, the insanely draining new job, the snowboarding injury and the family crisis back home in St. Louis. I suppose the ultimate low was feeling sometimes entirely helpless—not for myself, but for others. I wanted to help my clients. I wanted to help my family. And in both instances I was far, far from able to due to literal and metaphorical distance.

My high? I suppose just as there were many lows there were many highs. My roommates were an absolute high. I have had the privilege of always having incredible co-habitants. In fact, of the fifteen or so I have had in life, I don’t think I can complain of a single one. But Sweet16—wow. From weekly, sometimes nightly roommate dinners to walks to town to Deep Thought Mountain coffee to Gilmore Girls binge watching to endless mancronyms to a house full of love and jam-sessions and work boots and empowered women. . .  life in our apartment really was fantastic and lacking in absolutely nothing.

VYCC was another obvious high, as it is what brought me to Vermont to begin with. And, looking back I realize that big red barn was more “home” to me than my apartment ever was. It was where everything started—my first trail season, my life in Vermont, and community so deeply rooted and long-lasting I don’t know that I’ll find anything like it again.

And the beauty. Vermont is easily the most beautiful place I have ever lived, and probably more than anything else I will miss seeing endless winding rivers every time I drive anywhere. And Vermont maple syrup. . . and Cabot cheese and kind people and not being judged for wearing Carhartts and work boots and no make up when going out on the town.


The highs are infinite.


And lastly but not leastly, my epiphanies.



I learned that I appreciate a challenge and I learned that I am resilient.


An hour or so ago I wandered into an art store in downtown Lewisburg, PA. The owner struck up a conversation with me and asked if I was a student at the local university. I explained that no, in fact, I am simply passing through. I had been living in Vermont for a year and was now headed south.

“So, You were in Vermont for the winter???

I grinned ecstatically and answered that yes in fact, I was.

“Wow. Oh wow. Well good for you. I always know when I meet someone that has survived a Vermont winter they must really be a rugged soul. Good for you.”

Of course, I walked away proudly, having felt I had indeed, conquered the world. A flatlander survived a Vermont winter unscathed. . . mostly.

There were a lot of things I had survived. My first trail crew job. Being homeless. Unemployment. Negative 22 degree mornings complete with frozen nostril hairs. A really, really terrible job in the mental health sector. Being far from family during difficult happenings. Hiking Mt. Ascutney with a twenty-five pound pack and an eighteen pound iron rock bar. . . without my inhaler . . .


There were easy things too. Summer was an easy thing. While my fellow Conservation Crew Leaders spent eight weeks living in tents in the woods with their crews, essentially working sixteen hour days when all was said and done—I worked eight hour days and then went home to my adorable little suburb in Raleigh, North Carolina where I was fed grilled salmon and red wine and spent my evenings taking strolls around the block or watching Netflix with my host family.


I remember texting my friend Ellen as we updated each other on crew life whenever she could find cell phone reception somewhere off the Appalachian Trail. She always had insane stories about her crew life—about how difficult it was. There were endless stories about all of the things going wrong that could possibly go wrong.

And all I could think, while lying in my full size bed, under a roof, snuggled underneath a down comforter was,


Come trade places with me?


I think that was the first time in my entire life that I wanted a challenge.  I do not remember a time, ever, that I desired to do something difficult and wished for it to be so. It has never been a thing for me. People do not generally say of me,

“Oh, that AmyRose—boy does she love a challenge!”


But Vermont taught me that I do.


My summer was full of incredible projects, a “Dream Team” crew, and the best sponsors we could have asked for; I would not change a thing about it. But it made me aware more than ever of how I crave closeness to broken people. My corps members were easy. They were well-educated, hard-working, emotionally and psychologically sound, hilarious young people.


They didn’t need me.


I think the summer I had was the summer I needed. It gave me the trail building, bridge-building, playscape-creating, and sponsor relations experience that will forever be useful in whatever future I pursue. But perhaps more useful than all experience combined was the realization that in order to truly thrive, I need to be challenged. I need to be with the ‘difficult’ humans. The ones that attack me—physically, verbally, emotionally. The ones that come from a past so horrendous you would think it stuff only of movies and not real life.


On a road trip to Boston recently, my friend Jake asked me why I do what I do. Why social work, when there are a plethora of other much more wonderful things I could be doing with my life?


My answer, was “Because I can.”


I explained to Jake that I recognize all people are made of entirely different elements of ability, passion, desire and skill. My skill is that I am good at loving people—specifically the hard to love ones. I have my mother to thank for that—not because she is hard to love, but because I watch her love sometimes the most ridiculously awful and mean and treacherous people there ever were.


In a phone conversation with Jake a month or so ago, as he was assisting me in figuring out just what the heck I was going to do with my life—he mentioned to me that perhaps I was going back to Missouri because it was “safe.” Because of all of the choices I had—wilderness therapy in Utah or Hawaii, Crew Leading in Vermont, or Adventure Therapy Camp back “home”—Missouri was the easiest, so perhaps that is why it is what I chose.


At that point, I had one of those I-am-realizing-this-just-now-as-I-say-it-aloud-to-you moments.


“Missouri is not the safest choice or the easiest choice. It is neither. It is the hardest choice. It is leaving a place that I love to go to a place that I don’t. It is living in a tent. It is working with psychotic and abused and really difficult children. It is going to be hard as hell—that is why I’m doing it.”




Missouri is going to be hard and that is why I am going. Because two years ago when I came back from Korea and got comfortable (see 2014 February: Silver Spoon, Plastic Bowl) I promised myself I would do all that I could to ensure it didn’t happen again. Vermont became comfortable. Too comfortable.


So now I will drive 1,600 miles south to get a life guard certification and a high ropes certification that at this moment, I am not physically capable of getting due to I cannot, in fact, actually swim 300  yards or tie eight different kinds of knots. I will work sixteen-hour days and get paid less than I ever have and I will be, by far, the oldest Camp Guide there. I will be out of my league. I will be lost. I will challenged. I will live in a tent.


And I will thrive.


 Because I am leaving Vermont knowing great Truth. . .


I am strong. I am resilient. I welcome Challenge.





Vermont

Sitting on my stool post story telling, I beamed with excitement as Natasha and Jared looked on entirely dumbfounded and grinning with gratitude for my efforts at entertainment. All the while, Jared’s new housemate Jenn sat sheepishly on the hardwood floor beneath the wood stove, tanning a sheep hide and I’m sure wondering who this eccentric individual who had walked in and instantly overtaken her home was.

I am a story-teller.

I think I always have been—at least as long as I can remember. Maybe this is a third-born trait, or a classic ENFP trait, or a Gemini trait—but it is most definitely one of my more defining characteristics.

And so, in light of recognizing that I thrive on story-telling, and because it is now the year 2015 and I have not yet told a story this year—I will tell one now.

This story is dedicated to Jared Fehr. The same evening that I barged into Jenn’s home, overtook her living room, and ranted of the day’s happenings, Jared gave me a compliment that at the time, he probably did not realize the impact it had.

Grinning whole-heartedly from the kitchen, Jared said to me,



“You are such an incredible human being. I don’t just mean because of your story-telling, which is definitely incredible. I just mean that your existence, in general, is incredible. You are an incredible human being.”



In the short time I have known Jared, he has not been one to hand out random, half-hearted compliments. He is the type that only gives one when he means it, and when he knows it need be said—so when you get one you know, you have no choice but to accept it as Truth.  He has also, in the entirety of our friendship, never once presented any kind of ulterior motive, or desire to gain rather than give. Nor has he professed undying love and affection to me ever. It is because of this, that this particular compliment made me feel as though I should probably go write a song or a book or start a wilderness therapy program or all of the above. It made me feel as though I could, in fact, change the world. Because, you see, according to Jared, I am an incredible human being.


And that is something.


I learned a couple days ago that Jared is moving back to Colorado. My instinct was to pack up and leave as well. Not because I want to move to Colorado, and not because I cannot bear the thought of Vermont without him, but rather, because the absolute worst part of settling down anywhere, is knowing that at some point in time, I will be left behind—because I am no longer the one leaving.


And so, this story is an official an Ode to Jared. There is no gift to give that could adequately thank him for his recent friendship, and even more so, for the opportunity he gave me with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps.


What I can give, is a story.


                                      


 *         *          *          *          *          *          *          *




The year 2013 was quite possibly the worst year of my life.

Not the calendar year—more like April 2013—April 2014. This was due to the fact that I had just returned from a year abroad teaching English in South Korea as well as traveling the world with my boyfriend Tim, who subsequently decided that he no longer wanted to be with me just two short weeks after arriving back in the United States. This would have been a ‘normal’  and survivable breakup—except that we moved overseas together. And traveled the world together. And touched the lepers of India together. And taught the slum children of Farridhabad how to play Frisbee together. And rode elephants through the jungles of Thailand together. And stood beneath Big Ben together.  And swam the coral reefs of Malaysia alongside 100-year old sea turtles together. And survived Korea together. And looked at rings and talked of wedding venues together. And prior to all of this, ride-shared to Southern California together while applying to overseas jobs, slumming on the beaches, and ridesharing our way up and down the coast together while making sure to stop at the Grand Canyon at sunset en route to this California adventure.

What seemed an entire lifetime of adventure was jam-packed into one single romantic relationship. And so, for obvious reasons—I was a complete and total wreck when it came to a sudden and unexpected end.

It is okay to write this now. It is okay because it has been almost two years and just the other day I woke up and realized that I am okay. I don’t think of him every day and there is no pining or longing or aching. And that means something entirely wonderful—it means that I have healed.

But before I healed I went through hell. Before I healed I spent a week immediately following the breakup on the bathroom floor of my friend’s apartment in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I spent a week throwing up and dry-heaving and curled up into fetal position force-feeding myself Sprite and saltine crackers in sips and nibbles while I pleaded with God to take away at least the physical pain and eventually the emotional.

I lost ten pounds in two weeks.  I went to the home of the family with whom I had lived pre-Korea and proceeded to go through all of my belongings. Rather than sign a lease and settle down in Northwest Arkansas as I had originally intended, I donated half of my things to Goodwill—some of which were apartment things like a toaster and an iron—but some things included a lifetime collection of piano music and art that apparently I gave away during this emotional blackout and severely regretted several months later.

As soon as I was physically well enough to travel, I loaded up what survived the Purging of Belongings and headed to St. Louis to be with my family and live with my parents for the first time since leaving home at 18 years old.

In the months that followed, I cried a lot.

I watched an ungodly amount of HGTV and I wondered if at 29 years old I was even capable of surviving yet another heartbreak—this one seemingly much worse than all that preceded it. I also dove head first into beefing up my resume, now complete with international job experience. My goal was to secure a job working for a nonprofit organization in the development department. After spending years volunteering for various nonprofit organizations, at one point founding and funding a well in Uganda, East Africa, I felt I was entirely qualified for such a position.



152 denied resumes later, I learned that I am not.



That’s right. One hundred and fifty-two. I know because I made an Excel spreadsheet of all jobs I had applied to, complete with application date, as well as date I was rejected. Not only was I being denied jobs in the development sector for which I did not actually qualify, I was also being rejected for social work jobs for which I absolutely qualified.

I ended up waiting tables part time at a local Restaurant and Winery in the suburbs of St. Louis where I lived with my parents. And when the job ended due to a discrepancy with the owner, I became a barista at Starbucks. I got up at 3 o’clock in the morning to work for eight hours on my feet not making coffee, but emptying trashcans, sweeping floors, and making whipped creams—for minimum wage. Not only was this job absolutely horrible in a thousand different ways, but here I was with a four-year college degree and six years of experience in the mental health field and making minimum wage.


I lasted a month.


And after that month, I decided it was time to give teaching try—again. This time in the States. Because according to many of my fellow ESL teachers, teaching ESL overseas is entirely different from “really teaching” in the States. My substitute teaching career was a mix of kind of wonderful and very awful. The very awful parts were the days I substitute taught middle school in the ghetto. I will spare you the details. The kind of wonderful parts were the days I spent substitute teaching at a private Hebrew Academy in the nursery-aged classroom. On those days I built towers out of cardboard bricks and learned the Passover song in Hebrew and made arts and crafts and drank juice and learned what Kosher meant and pushed tiny Jewish children in swings in sunshine alongside incredibly kind teachers as we all sweated the day away in our ankle-length skirts and wrist-length, collarbone-covering shirts as was required attire.

It was during my time as a substitute teacher at Epstein Hebrew Academy that I decided teaching was not for me. I decided this not because it was a dreadful experience, but because it was actually a quite nice one. It was in fact, the best substitute teaching experience I had. But upon realizing it was the best teaching experience I had—and that it still meant being indoors for about seven hours a day, confined to one classroom, I realized that if this was as good as it gets, it was not for me. I am not meant to be confined.

And so the endless job search continued.

A Google search for “nonprofit jobs in Asheville, North Carolina” led me to a job posting on indeed.com for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps.  Why I decided on Asheville is unbeknownst to me. If I remember correctly, it was simply because numerous individuals had throughout my life, spoken its praises and ensured me that I would “love it there—it’s so you.”

I had given up on St. Louis. Not because I wanted to—I was resigned to the idea of living there for at least a few years as I now had a nephew, my parents were only getting older, and it was quite nice to live in the same city as my family for the first time in eleven years. But the fact that I was still underemployed a year after returning from overseas and after a year of aggressive job searching and applying led me to believe that just maybe, there was something for me out of state.

I applied to Vermont Youth Conservation Corps thinking that I would be training in Vermont for a couple of weeks and spending the remainder of my employment with the organization in Asheville, North Carolina, as that seemed to be what the Indeed.com job posting implied. I remember very clearly getting off of Skype after my hour and twenty minute interview and saying aloud to myself mid-laughter,

“They either think I’m crazy—or I just got myself a job . . . or maybe both. Probably both.”

According to the job description I would get to live in the woods with teenagers while building trail. So—I would get to live and breathe and eat outside and potentially change the lives of adolescent youth. Just my cup of tea J

I received a phone call from Jared two weeks after my interview. I was in the parking lot of the Hebrew Academy and immediately after getting off the phone broke into hysterical sobbing. A year of rejection and barely surviving on a total income of $7,000 and I had finally secured a job that wasn’t waiting tables or emptying trashcans for minimum wage. Not only so, but it meant adventure. This meant leaving the suburbs and traversing to an entirely new place that until then I had never even visited—the Northeast.

Doing so meant selling my most prized camera lens to pay for a catalytic converter for my car in order to make it successfully pass Missouri State inspections. It meant driving four hours south to an affordable mechanic and it meant quitting my incredible volunteer job as a freelance photographer for a documentary film crew. It meant packing up and leaving my family to move to a state I’d never been where I didn’t know a soul.

A twenty-two hour road trip turned into twenty-seven road hours stretched out over three days due to stopovers in Louisville, Indianapolis, and Lewisburg. And let’s not forget when my check engine light came on at around 1:00am in Akron, Ohio. I spent the night in a budget motel that reeked of mildew and had hair on the pillowcase and sheets. I cried myself to sleep that night as I remembered the last hotel stay I had was in London, England with Tim after walking the shores of the Thames River at dusk.

Halfway through New York I ran out of gas. At three o’ clock in the morning, the nearest gas station was 31 miles away. Not a single lamp lit yard of highway in sight. I still have no idea, aside from pure miracle, how I made it to the next gas station.

What I remember all to vividly is puking into a Winnie the Pooh gift bag. The gift bag my best friend Fern gave me during my stopover in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The gift bag full of road trip munchies and good reads for my time in the woods. The gift bag I spastically dumped out and proceeded to puke into, while driving 70mph on black New York highways without gas, as I called my mother sobbing, asking whether or not I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.

“MOM I CAN’T STOP PUKING AND CRYING AND MY STOMACH IS IN KNOTS AND I HAVEN’T SLEPT SINCE I LEFT ST. LOUIS AND I’M OUT OF GAS AND THERE ARE NO GAS STATIONS FOR MILES AND WHAT IF I’M WRONG?!??! WHAT IF THIS IS THE WORST DECISION OF MY LIFE?
            Am I making a mistake?”


My dear mother, in true Lynne Tomlinson fashion, talked and prayed me through the night.


Eventually, I made it safely to Richmond, Vermont. I rolled into training three hours late, stomach in knots, head spinning. I was wearing $200 Diesel jeans, Birkenstock sandals, a St. Louis Cardinals shirt, and a full face of makeup.

Everyone else was in Carhartts and work boots. And zero makeup.

From what I remember, I appeared to be at least somewhat confident and thrilled to be there. In reality I was scared out of my mind and entirely out of my element. It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned my five months in Asheville, North Carolina was not at all the plan. I had unknowingly moved to Vermont.

The following months presented the most intense culture shock I have ever experienced.  I have lived in the suburbs of St. Louis, the ninth ward of New Orleans, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Korea. And still, being on trail crew was the most intense cultural shock experience I have had to date.

Maybe it is because when I lived overseas I expected the shock. I expected not to fit in. I expected to be out of my element. I expected to not understand things—to not know things. What I did not expect, in moving to Vermont and joining a trail crew, was all of the above.

But I didn’t fit in. I was out of my element. I didn’t understand things. I didn’t know things. And most of all, I felt entirely inadequate. There was a time we stood in a circle at training with a tarp full of tools at our feet. We were instructed to pick a tool and describe its use, how to safely carry it, and why we find it useful. There were two tools I recognized. A shovel and a flathead screwdriver. The flathead screwdriver turned out to be a chisel and not a screwdriver at all. Thankfully, the shovel was not picked up on the first round so I was safe. I stood in awe as my fellow crew leaders proceeded to pick up tools such as pick mattocks and McCleods and describe in detail just how incredibly useful they could be in building trail.

What. Was I thinking.

I am a social worker. I am a writer. I am a freelance photographer. I am many things. What I am not—what I was not—was a conservation worker and a trail builder. And yet—this is where I was. I was in Vermont. I was a Conservation Crew Leader in Vermont with not an ounce of experience in the field. My co-leaders told story after story of experiences on other trail crews out west. I sat silently by, in awe that this world of trail crew even existed, and wondering how I could possibly have not known of its existence for twenty-nine years.

The following six months were a blur of freezing mornings, coffee addiction frenzies, twenty-pound weight gain, fireside chats and jam sessions, once-a-week showers, endless carbs, dirty hands and a whole new world of trail-building. It was eating constantly and never being full. It was hours at Laundromats and realizing that the $20 in quarters we were instructed to bring would not be get me through the season. It was realizing that Merrell ‘water-proof’ hiking boots are not waterproof at all. It was learning what it meant to “pack light” and finally admitting that I will never fully grasp how to “pack light.” It was lots of rain and lots of cold when in Vermont—and lots of heat and lots of hot during my summer in North Carolina. It was recognizing how vital a co-lead is, and also recognizing that not only am I a decent leader after all, but I actually enjoy it. It was blazing a trail where there was none, and seeing the ecstatic and thankful faces of those for whom we built it. It was constructing giant teepees out of sweet gum. It was learning what an armored crossing was, spending days building one, and hearing each other's life stories as we inhaled coffee and tea in between digging and picking and rock hunting and setting. It was putting up with, as well as putting out--a whole lot of flatulence. And on the very worst of days--the days that I was cold and wet and hungry and scared to death of what may or may not happen at the end of the season because I would be unemployed again. . .  On those days it was me looking up for just a  moment to see a canopy of maples and smelling the fresh air of the forest and feeling the ever-constant drizzle of New England rain and saying aloud, "At least I'm not at Starbucks."


It was creating something useful and preserving something beautiful and living alongside some of the most amazing human beings I have ever known.



What I came away with was a love for the outdoors that I always knew I had but never knew how vital it was to my very well-being. I didn’t know how at home I would feel in a big red barn or in a tent in the woods or how familial a group of near strangers could become. I didn’t know that I would ever be okay going out into public without an ounce of makeup on and unshaven legs. I didn’t know that I could ever actually see muscles on my very own arms or successfully carry an eighteen pound rock bar up Ascutney Mountain. I didn’t know a lot of things before VYCC.

And there was pain there. There was pain as well. There was an awkward and unprofessional almost-relationship with my supervisor and the scars that followed when I was sent to North Carolina for the summer and did not hear from him again. And there was my nephew being born two weeks after I left St. Louis. There was my grandmother dying three weeks into my season and another family member being placed on suicide watch while I was thousands of miles away and without adequate cell phone reception. There was the end of the season and having no idea what the hell I was going to do or where I was going to live or if I was going to stay.

There was living on a near-stranger’s boat in the bay for a week, in a cabin at a state park, on a couch at a friend’s apartment. There was unemployment and a quickly dwindling bank account and fear of the unknown.

And then? Then there was social work.

Then there was taking a job with Washington County Mental Health as a Behavioral Interventionist. There was realizing that just maybe, although I swore time and again I would “never go back to social work” that is where I am supposed to be.



So here I am.


I am living in Montpelier, Vermont. I am living in the Northeast, where sometimes I wake up shivering because the temperature has dropped to sixteen below zero and I failed to turn on my electric blanket before I went to bed.

Sometimes when I go outside in the morning my nose hairs freeze, and sometimes I come home from snowboarding and my toes are frostbitten and white and numb and I call my roommates freaking out because I think I’m going to have to have them amputated.

I spend my mornings with Heather, siting on our couch staring out at ‘Deep Thoughts Mountain,’ convincing ourselves that we are not required to be motivated or productive until 1 o’clock in the afternoon on non-work days. I spend my evenings with my girls—my clients—attempting to convince them of the potential they don’t believe they have.



And the time in between?



The rest of the time is spent cooking roommate dinners and writing songs and watching live bluegrass and realizing how very small Montpelier is as I share a microbrew with one of ten total bartenders at one of three bars in town. The rest of the time is spent learning how to snowboard and shooting video for my musically inclined friend Britt Kusserow. The rest of the time is spent researching wilderness  and outdoor therapy programs as I attempt as best I know how to start my own right here in Montpelier, Vermont.

When I first came here I only saw the beautiful. I came to Richmond. That was home. And I came to build trail. And that meant the parts of Vermont I saw were the trails and the mountains and the rivers and the postcard towns.

But now I work for Washington County. Now I work in Berlin and Barre. Now I see the reality of Vermont—and that is a great disparity between the very rich, upper class and the welfare heroine addicts and the 25-35 year old nature-loving transplants. And it is not so beautiful anymore. It is painful and real and not so much a temporary dream as a permanent choice and way of life.

This way of life that is not so beautiful anymore is still the best I’ve ever had. Vermont to me is not heroine addicts and rich upper class and extreme liberal views and maple syrup and Cabot cheese and tourism. That is not what I choose to see.

I choose to see the Green Mountains and golden capitol building at the bottom of our hill and the rivers that run through every town as far as the eye can see. I choose to see the broken young people that I am privileged enough to be given the opportunity to love. I choose to see the wonder that is Bolton Valley  Ski Resort and all of the endless snowboarding and skiing and beautifully bearded men the world has to offer. I choose to see my candle-lit living room and my dear roommates and friends as we write music and sing our hearts out and don’t give a care that most times we are out of tune and can’t figure out the harmony and don’t actually know how to play more than four chords on guitar. I choose to see the countryside littered with red barns and cattle and sheep and horses and solar panels and cedar homes. I choose to see VYCC alumni coming to stay and visit every other weekend because the bonds we’ve formed will last a lifetime.



And what else to I see?



I see that for the first time in many years I am alive again. 


 My job is heart-wrenching and terrible in a million and one ways but it means something. It means something to get to go to work and know that I am making an infinite impact—though I may not see that impact until ten years down the road. And although I am no longer building trail or living in the woods I know what it means now. I know what it looks like—to live out of a pack and to always smell terribly and to eat three times what I would in my ‘normal’ life and to look up to the sky midday to see that I am surrounded by paper birch and white pines and covered in mineral soil. I know what it is to live alongside fellow human beings that understand what it is to travel, to roam, to love the earth, and to continue to survive on almost nothing in order to do something that makes us feel alive.




So thank you, Jared Fehr. Thank you, VYCC. Thank you for taking a chance on a young woman who had never held a mattock.


Thank you—for bringing me to Vermont.


Go West


My little sister and I have a saying. When life gets us down, and the funk sets in, we look at each other entirely seriously and say,


When all else fails—go west.


I’m not sure how we came up with this phraseology or why we thought it was Truth. Perhaps because we are both wandering souls and according to anyone who has run away from Life ever, southern California or Portland, Oregon is the obvious place to go in order to pursue the dreams that no one in the Midwest believes in and do so without being seen as reckless, lazy, irrational, and slightly insane.

Bonsai followed through on this idea.  I remember very clearly the day my mom, my dad, my little sister and I loaded into the Forerunner and drove her to the Greyhound bus station. All she had was a hiking pack.

I don’t know that I have ever seen such fear and dread on my parents’ face as I did that day. They looked around at the demographic of people at the station and were utterly terrified. Their youngest child, their baby girl, was about to go on a cross-country trip with a bus full of ex-convicts and drug addicts (not all) en route to New Mexico, and they were not convinced they would ever see her again.

But they did.

Following her Rainbow Gathering experience in New Mexico, she hitchhiked to southern California and spent the next handful of months experiencing life as a traveling musician. From there she had an Walden-sort-of-educational experience in Boston, a month of crashing on my floor in Northwest Arkansas, a very organic stint on a farm in Colorado—and eventually, she came back to St. Louis.


We spent a year there together, living in the same city for the first time in eleven years. And as much as our time together was incredible and needed and longed for, we both often spoke of the desire to leave. We were there because we had to be. We were there because it made the most logical sense. And every now and then, as we sat on her apartment floor sipping Yogi tea, listening to Pandora and contemplating life, one of us would remind the other—When all else fails, go west.


But we didn’t.


She stayed in St. Louis. And she got a job as a pianist for a winery and rocked it. And now she works at a Japanese sushi bar in the city. And I moved to Vermont. I didn't have a musician's gig and my own place and my own community in St. Louis like she did. So I moved to Vermont to build trail, and then I stayed.  I stayed in a place I swore all of my life I would never, ever move. . .

the north.


I stayed in a place where I am required to purchase studded snow tires if I have any desire to successfully get anywhere ever in the coming months.  I stayed in a place where apparently it is common for temperatures to get up to thirty degrees below ZERO.  I stayed in a place that I came to only eight months ago and did not know a soul. And I work in a place that is emotionally draining and psychologically devastating and altogether terrible a lot of times. I stayed in a place where it is cold the majority of the year, and cloudy most of the time.  I hate the cold.


I hate the cold.


But in this moment, I am sitting at my computer at a coffee shop venue in Burlington. There is a bluegrass band boasting a bass, a violinist, two guitar players, and a vocalist with possibly one of the most incredible voices I have ever heard. The sun is out, finally, and I am watching passersby through the wall of windows. In a matter of hours I will be leaving to go snow-boot shopping, and then drive an hour south to spend the evening getting paid to hang with teenage girls.

On Monday, I will for the first time in my life, obtain a driver’s license from a state other than Missouri, and I will move into a townhouse in the capitol city of Vermont—Montpelier. I will be within walking distance of the Hunger Mountain Co-op and downtown Montpelier—which is home to a plethora of book  stores, coffee shops, an art supply store, a kickass bead shop, and pretty decent people-watching. On December 1st, I will be purchasing my very first ski pass, and on December 6th, I will be hosting my very first housewarming party.


This Thursday is Thanksgiving. I will be spending it on an airplane, St. Louis bound. When I get there, I will hug my little sister with all my might and tell her something new. . . 



I will tell her that sometimes the best thing we can do, is stay.




Little Demons



Several years ago a friend of mine made the decision to leave a therapeutic day treatment center we worked for and go back to working a residential program for sexual offenders. 

Why would you ever go back?

I questioned.

If you know how horrible it is—you have done it before. Why? Why go back? Stay.

She smiled wryly.

The demons you know, right? We always go back to the demons we know.




Four years later—I have done the same. . .




Hello you little demons
Who steal these precious souls
Hello you heartless cowards
Who know not where to go

I’m sorry that you’ve come here
To take them as they are
You only mean to beat them
To leave them broken—scarred

I came back because I am insane
We all must be, you know
To come to such a hellish place
And think we will leave whole




Come back my child—I’ll follow you
Into the darkest night
When you raise your hand I’ll run from you
Or perhaps put up a fight

 I see you hiding there my dear
Beneath the grass, beneath your rage
I know you only run from me
Because you fear I will not stay

Tonight I proved you wrong, my dear
I turned my car around
I crouched beneath your barricade
I dared to make a sound

You’re still everything I said, you see
You’re everything and more
You’re smart and loved and worth the world
Not a worthless, used up whore

I know your pain runs deep and wide
And most I’ll never know
But for now please know I’m here
No matter what you show




Tonight I cry beneath the stars
And wonder why it’s so
That Life could give such brutal scars
And hope that we would grow. . .









Patent Leather Pumps: A Day in the Life



This morning I proudly walked the downtown streets of Montpelier, VT in bright red, patent leather pumps, fitted Express suit pants, and a fitted, collared, button-down, black and white ‘career top’. My hair was up in a bun—and freshly washed, I might add. (I only get to shower once a week). Red lips. Pearl earrings.

I was carrying 8-inch, all-leather, reinforced-toe, waterproof work boots in my right hand, and brown Arborware workpants and a flannel in the other. En route to harvest grapes at a vineyard in Grand Isle, VT.


There were stares. Lots of them.


I don’t blame them. Vermont is full of the farmer and outdoor laborer type. Most people here don’t wear makeup at all and most people certainly do not roam around town in candy-apple red, patent leather pumps.

But most especially—people do not usually roam the streets in both. Either you are a career woman in leather pumps, or you are a laborer in loggers. You cannot be both.


I am both. 


Maybe it is because I am an attention-craving, adventure-seeking, middle child or maybe it is because I am a textbook ENFP and have exhausted all career options that every personality test told me I should be: teacher, social worker, writer, film producer, humanitarian.


My life since returning from South Korea in 2013 after teaching English as a second language has been quite ridiculous. My time in St. Louis consisted of living with my parents in white, middle-class suburbia, waiting tables and substitute teaching, freelance photography, and too many sazeracs. But mostly—it was a time of rejection. 152 resumes and only a handful of interviews, mostly for minimum wage, no-degree-required jobs. My mother calls about once a week to remind me that I should be ‘home.’ She calls to whisper/yell into my ear that there are plenty of jobs in Missouri. The conversation always ends the same:

“Missouri doesn’t want to hire me, Mom. We’ve been over this. Remember the 152 resumes?”


And now? I live in the woods. I live in a tent in the woods and all that I own is packed quite tightly and without any sense of order into my 2003 Toyota Corrolla, Ethel. I woke up this morning under the stars and had breakfast in the forest and drove to a barn where I changed out of jeans and layers and hiking boots into career attire and patent leather pumps. I am in between jobs and spend my time working on an organic farm and applying for jobs and kayaking and hiking and blogging and having art parties and breakfast parties in the parking lot of the VYCC headquarters.


My biggest fear since returning to the States after teaching abroad has been that I would ‘give in’ to returning to the Social Work field. Yes, I have a Psychology degree and years of experience in mental health. But the last job I held in that field I loathed. I swore I would never go back. Not ever. Not even if there were no other option. Not even if it meant unemployment.


I also swore I would never live with my parents again. Or move back to St. Louis. Or still be roaming at age 30.


Here is the Truth.


The most meaningful job I’ve ever held in my entire life was my first job right out of college. I worked as a Live-in Youth Care Specialist at the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home. I was essentially a ‘house mom’ to eight teenage girls. I lived with them. I took them to school. I scheduled their appointments. I dried their tears. I laughed with them. And I went on a million and one random adventures that no one will every fully understand except those of us that were there. . . in Butler, MO. . . with the mysterious giant mushroom.

That job paid me the highest salary I have ever made. It provided the best health benefits. It was the most challenging, and the most rewarding. It was going into my room every night for the first month, falling to my knees, and sobbing for what seemed like forever after hearing my girls’ stories of abuse, neglect, rape and loss. I still talk to my girls. Not all of them, but some.  Six years later, I was Jean’s bridesmaid. I was in her delivery room visiting on the day of  her firstborn’s birth. I was the one Leah called when she needed advice. I was the inspiration behind Tina’s decision to go to school for Psychology.


Life is a mess. If it’s not, then you’re probably not living it very fully. It’s not supposed to be pretty all the time. I don’t think it’s even supposed to be pretty most of the time. I think it is supposed to be hard—if you’re doing it right. And right now, it’s not. It’s easy. It’s roaming and living in a tent and crashing couches and eating PB&J and exploring and wondering and building trail and in all honesty, not really being challenged at all.


I read a blog recently that posed “seven questions that will help show you your life purpose.” There were a few that stuck out:
1.    What struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate?

I am willing to tolerate pain. Emotional pain. I am willing to take on the heartache and loss of others. To empathize with them to a point that their pain becomes my own. Because I’m good at it. And because it hurts and it sucks and it’s draining but in the end it makes a difference in someone’s life. And it’s worth it to see.

2.    What is true about you today that would make your 8 year old self cry?

I live out of my car. It’s kind of fun. . . but for the most part, it’s really not. I live out of my car because I haven’t ‘settled down.’ And that is okay for a while. But to be entirely honest—it’s getting old. People often ask me when I’ll stop. When I’ll stay. My response is both pathetic and true to middle-child syndrome—incredibly dramatic—“I like wandering. When you are always the one leaving, no one can leave you behind.”  But I’m tired. As exciting and invigorating as starting over is, I’m tired of it. I want a community that lasts more than six months. I want people to stop emailing me and asking me where in the world I currently am because I am actually staying in one place for more than a year. I want to make my 8-year-old self happy.

   
3.    How do you want to be remembered?

I want to be remembered as someone who tried. Some of my efforts have been better than others. Namely, my humanitarian efforts. But the last few years I have given in to the lie that I have to do something BIG. Like change the world. I thought that meant I had to work for some sort of worldwide, humanitarian aid, 501c3. I thought it meant I couldn’t live in the US. Or if I did, it had to be for an organization that allowed me to continue being a world-traveller. I thought it meant Peace Corps or Americorps or any job that backdoorjobs.com offered.

But the reality is that the world is changed by everyone in it. Even the ‘small’ people. It is changed by the garbage man and the postal service worker and the waitress just as much at it is changed by the corporate investment analyst and the stay-at-home-mom.




Pride has killed my passion.




When I drilled a well in Uganda, in El Salvador, in Haiti. . . when I wrote a book. . . when I volunteered to rebuild Moore, OK after the tornado. . . when I did freelance photography and loved it and met all kinds of people. . . I was in social work. The group home was wonderful and the day treatment facility I worked at later on was the worst job of my life—but the point is, I was doing something. I had a full-time job with benefits and a place to call home and community to pick me up when I needed. The things I am most proud of in life—my humanitarian efforts, my writing, my art. All of these things I accomplished when I was a social worker.


But being a social worker isn’t something I can brag about.


I can’t post pictures of my adventures with clients on facebook because of HIPPA(privacy) laws. I don’t get to write blogs about the temples and mountains and sites of Korea. And I don’t get to live in the woods and look #hardcorps  and build trail and feel like a badass about it. I just get to do what I do best—and that is invest in people. Broken people.


I like to be the one that my friends live vicariously through. I like to be told to adventure on. And most of all, I like to be told that what I’m doing in life is awesome.


People do not think that social work is awesome. They know that it’s awful and that turnover is high and that pay is horrible and that no sane person would ever choose to do it. It’s not glorious and it’s not something that anyone will envy in any way—much unlike teaching ESL, drilling wells all over the world, or living in the forest.
But it seems to be the thing I was best at. And the thing that allowed me to do what makes me feel most alive.


So here’s a farewell to pride.

Here’s to recognizing the small people.

Here’s to changing the world one raging teenager at a time :)