Sunday, December 7, 2008

Lost and Found

I have never been lost before. Disoriented, purposeless, confused, but this dark wandering feeling is new to me.

A million stars smock their light across the sky, but the light is lost before it reaches us, into an infinite darkness. Shapes loom--cliffs, rocks, jutting sandstone darker than the dark enveloping us. Fourteen of us are wandering, hoping that we will find our car.

We are lost in the San Rafael Swell- a beautiful and desolate desert. Far away from anything, I cling to Mike’s eternal, indefatigable optimism.

I am relatively dry and warm compared to others in our group. We emerged four hours ago cheerful, although somewhat weary, at dusk from the river bottom of the Black Box. Now, with the sunset and still-wet clothes, many of us are shivering and cold.

Two small lights dance in our group of fourteen. Mike’s headlamp and Trevor’s dying headlamp. One light moves ahead while we wait with the other one, and then it beckons us forward on the walkie talkie.

I laughed when Mike packed that headlamp. It was midnight the night before we drove to this remote hike. He asked me if I thought he should bring the big backpack. I probably snorted as I stuffed one more granola bar (food is always a necessity) into my minimalist Camelback pack--two liters of water and some granola bars, maybe an extra shirt, but that was debatable.

“What are you packing all that for?” I said “We’re not even camping. It’s a three hour hike. What do you think we’re going to do?” I asked my boyscout husband, somewhat derisively.

He deferred from the larger backpack, but ignored my snorts and continued to pack his large Camelback with a first aid kit, headlamp, water purifying pump, matches, a few small blankets and an extra shirt for each of us.

“You just want to take the pump because we’ve never got to use it before. You’re crazy. It’s a three hour hike,” I said.

He smiled to himself and ignored me.


Now, here I am in the dark, my hope tethered by a headlamp. Without the headlamps we would have to sit down and camp, completely unprepared. I can barely make out the shape of the ground we are disjointedly scrambling over, avoiding drop offs and cacti by staying together as much as possible.

I want to go home. Chelsea, a friendly, industrious and cheerful girl is huddled closely to her husband, no longer speaking. The three little boys are silent. Two are huddled close to their dad, holding his hands. The third, walks in silent submission next to his grandpa. It is silent, and the quiet and the dark are pressing in.

I sing, and keep a silent prayer from whispering through my lips. Please, let us find the car. I need to go home and feed my baby.

At home my two-year-old and a two-month-old are theoretically asleep at their Grandma’s. My mom offered to take the girls so I could go on this hike. I was torn, but in the end decided that a three hour hike could be done in a day trip, and the girls could live without me for one day, even with Hannah still breastfeeding.

Mike and I woke up at 3:00 a.m. that June morning to drive the four hours to the group campsite where everyone else had slept over. I pumped before we left, and I pumped when we got there at 7:00 a.m. The plan was to pump once more right before we left and then when we got back. Three hours was a perfect interval—the interval at which Hannah ate.

Mike and I were going on three hours of sleep, but it was the magic number. We met Trevor at their campsite and flew his miniature airplane in the quickly lightening desert sky. It was a small buzz in the silence around us. Down by the river we met the rest of the hiking party—14 of us, including three young boys.

The boys were going on the hike, and I remember feeling slightly uneasy about this arrangement. Not my hike though. I was just along for the ride. With some delay in getting the campsite down, we left at 11:00 for the trail head on winding, bumpy dirt roads.

I was pleasantly disoriented, bumping along next to Mike in Trevor’s truck. Tyler and Chelsie, Trevor’s cousin and wife were pleasant and friendly company in the backseat.

In the dark Chelsie is silent and huddled into Tyler. I am still singing quietly. Kaye, Trevor’s mom, is wrapped in a shiny emergency blanket, pulled from Mike’s pack. She talks quietly with Donna and her daughter Julie. I subdue my mounting panic by thinking ironically about who will be the first to break down. Maybe it is me. I am the one who is singing tremulously. In the distance the headlamp bobs. Jerry, Trevor’s dad and the trip leader, is searching, but no word. Where is the car?

The sun is hot at noon, our foolish start time. Wearing life jackets and carrying ski-pole walking sticks our group heads down to the river. The hike down is no small task with bouldering and some drops that require ropes. With inexperienced hikers, which most of us are, and the three boys, the three hour hike quickly turns into a shadeless water-draining ordeal.

Mike, Trevor and Jerry have done the hike before. The three hour estimate is based on their experience. One hour to hike down to the 60 foot rappel into the river bottom, then two hours for the river hike.

When we reach the rappel it has been three hours already. My camelback is dry. I am out of water, as is most of our group. Also, I can feel my milk coming in and I am hungry. I hide in a crevice and hand pump onto the rocks, while the others prepare for the rappel.

The 60 foot rappel is daunting. For the boys, it is impossible. There is no way they can make it alone. Jerry asks their dad if they really want to go down to the river. Their dad commits them. He takes one of them down hooked to his harness. Mike takes another, and Trevor the last. Don’t try this at home kids. After a blister-inducing rappel where I bang my legs and manage to look more graceful than an elephant, Mike and I discuss the proper allowable age for wilderness hikes that involve rappelling.

Once everyone is down, Mike breaks out the water pump. Everyone gets to refill and the boys take off with their dad, to beat us down the river.

The walls soar up to the sky, and walking in the river my shoes fill with silt and sand. I worry about my milk supply, but what’s done is done. The river walk is easy and relaxed; we fall back and move forward to walk with different people. Bill, Donna, Faye, Julie, Jerry, Trevor, Tyler and Chelsie, and Brandon. They’re all related, and Mike and I are the interlopers, crashing the family party. This is a cheerful and speak-no-ill family. Jerry reminds me of a southern gentleman.

We hurry, but don’t rush. The daylight is creeping slowly away, but if we reach the get- out point before dark we will be fine.

At dusk we drip from the river, where the boys are waiting. We take our time cleaning our shoes out and getting ready for the dry hike to the car, which is only a few minutes away. We are warm from the river still, but the sun is setting. Mike and I move away from the group for minute to change into our dry shirts. The darkness starts to settle around us.

It is midnight. It has been twelve hours since we started. I hold Mike’s arm. Tyler asks Mike if he has a flare in his bag. Mike has had almost everything else, so I am surprised when his Mary Poppins-like bag doesn’t produce one.

We have to get out of here. We can’t camp here. I need to feed Hannah. I want to go home. I have to get home tonight, so I can be home in the morning. I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home. Why isn’t Jerry finding the car? Where is Trevor going without a headlamp? Who is in charge? I want to be home.

“We’ll find it. They’re searching. No problem. We’ll get home Steph.” Mike is unrelentingly cheerful. I am surprised he doesn’t start whistling. Bill starts a rousing rendition of “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” I join in, and feel some cheer, but just as we get to the chorus, we are silenced by the group.

“Shhhh! Shhhh! Be Quiet! They’re trying to communicate.” The walkie talkie is unintelligible and I have a hard time deciphering Trevor’s message. “Steph, how do you want your sandwich?” he asks me.

I think this means they have found the truck, the truck that has our food waiting in a cooler in the trunk, the truck that is our only link out here to society, but I’m not sure I believe them.

But as we follow the headlamps, and pull ourselves up over a rise, the truck glows in the darkness, a surreal white.

We start a fire next to the truck and slowly the warmth sleeps back into our bodies. Rootbeer has never tasted so good, and a fire has never felt so friendly. I feel so tired. Beyond tired. I lean my head against Mike’s warm shoulder and think about crying.

I'm entering this in the Write-Away contest on the blog Scribbit

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Creative Nonfiction

While driving to Idaho a few weeks ago, Mike says to me, "Stephanie, if you want to write a book, write a book. Just do it."
Okay. I'll just do it. The problem is I have to make up characters and they have to do something. I'm not very good at this. I love writing, but I don't love trying to imagine imaginary people. I'd rather take the characters and events in my life and write about them. They are so dang interesting, and so real.

Here are my most creative ideas for a book:
A book about a runner
A book about a girl with two kids and a good husband.
A book about hmmmm. That's the extent of my life and thus the extent of my story ideas. I imagine trying to send these ideas in a query letter. "Dear kind agent, this is a book about a runner. She runs and she's never been kissed. It's very humorous actually. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll laugh some more, and then the book will be over."
I tried to explain my handicap to Mike. "Well, I just don't know what to write about. I like writing about people I know, but I don't want to offend them. And they have to do something. What if I write about a woman with two kids and a husband? I'd have to use you for the model."
"Well, would it be a husband that she despises and hates and wishes she'd never met?"
"No. But what if I killed you off and then talked about how she gets through her grief?"
So do you have any ideas?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

No. You're Ugly

"I like me. I like my hair. I like pink.. ." Kenzie, my three-year-old sings while dancing around the living room.
I wonder when it is that my little girl will stop liking herself and start worrying about her hair, her skin, her makeup, her body size. Because it's inevitable, isn't it?
Is there a way to escape the insecurity and angst that comes with realizing that you don't live up to some arbitrary standard of beauty?
I had a big nose. I remember the comments and snickers. I remember trying to walk facing towards large crowds so they couldn't see my profile. I remember always trying to shield my face with my hand in class, so the people sitting next to me wouldn't notice my monstrous nose. I remember reading the sign that said, "God don't make no junk." and thinking, "No, but he makes ugly people like me."
We read Cyrano de Bergerac in English class and I burned with shame every time we read lines about his big nose, knowing that my class mates were all thinking, "Poor Stephanie. This is her story." I knew it was the reason I didn't date, couldn't get a boy to be interested at all. I tried to joke about, but it was painful to make fun of myself just to try and beat someone to the punchline.
Then, between my junior and senior year of high school, I was scheduled for major dental surgery on my jaw. Why not get my nose done at the same time? So I did. I had a nose job. (There, I've said it. I had a nose job.)
The surgery was painful and awful, and I began the school year with two black eyes, a nose cast, and my jaw wired shut. Somehow this seemed less humiliating than having a big nose.
I expected instant self-esteem, dates would come flooding, friends would gather around and awe at my new beauty.
But I was still me. I was still sarcastic and tried to beat people to the punchline by being clever and mean first. I think I had a little reverse sexism going on. I do remember going on a blind date (after the black eyes had cleared up), and the boy actually showed interest and called me back. I'll never know if it was the fact that I didn't have a big nose anymore, or the fact that I wasn't focused on my big nose, so I allowed myself to have a good time.
It took a few years of high achievement in college, and succeeding in running to finally realize that hey, I was okay. I was worth knowing and loving. And I might not be beautiful, but I was fine.
I often wonder how different my life would be without that nose job. Would I still have developed self-esteem and worth? Would I be able to hold my head up while walking by a crowd and not care if people were staring and laughing at my nose? Would I ever have loved myself enough to allow someone else to love me?
I don't know. I do know that despite a nose job, make up, exercise, good clothes,whatever I do is not good enough.
Just a month ago we got our family pictures taken. I went to the shop to order the prints, and there I watched myself get photoshopped into the photographer's standard of beauty. Teeth: whitened. Hair: flyaways fixed. Face and neck: Wrinkles smoothed and skin tone evened. Bust line: lifted. Arms: slimmed.
I have plenty of things to be self-conscious about, now I have a few more thanks to my instant chest lift. The pictures look great. But somehow I feel cheated. Silly me, after my nose job I had started to believe all those people that said beauty is on the inside. I thought beauty was something you did, not something that came in a compact.
The other day I walked by a new shop opening up in the area. It offered the "Gift of Beauty," because obviously unless you wear their products you are ugly and unacceptable.
I find it highly ironic that we tell our little girls, "You're beautiful just the way you are," and then stand in front of the mirror and cover our faces with make up.
How am I supposed to answer their questions:
"Why do you wear that mommy?"
"It makes me look prettier."
"Why can't I wear some?"
"Because you're beautiful just the way you are. (But I'm ugly, so I need this.)"
Yeah, that doesn't make sense to me either.
I have mostly stopped wearing makeup. I am in make up limbo right now. I don't quite dare to plunge all the way into makeup free, which probably makes it worse when I don't wear makeup. You know, the shock of seeing someone makeup free after you've seen them dolled up is much worse than just seeing someone who never wears makeup.

I know, according to society, I look better with makeup. My eyes are brighter, my skin tone is more even, my lips are fuller. But deep down, I think this is ridiculous.
I'd like to take my mascara and eyeshadow and throw them in the trash as a symbolic gesture of my belief in inner beauty, but something stops me.
A part of my feeling good about myself is tied to that little tube of black mascara.
And that's a shame.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


I came back. I imagined myself like Rocky, running up those bleacher steps. I! Would! Pull! Myself! Out! of! the! hole!

I was partially chicken though. I came back part-time. My 70 hour teaching work week was now only 40 hours. Sometimes I even got to see the sun.

I taught only three classes. Journalism and eleventh grade English. I finally figured out what to ignore and what to make a big deal of in class. I stopped assigning homework and spent lots of class time working with my students on writing and reading the books with them. I figured out that the best teachers (which I was far from) shared their passion with their classes unabashedly. I think I managed to do that once, and surprised myself and my students.

I figured out how to help my really talented and wonderful journalism classes to put together a newspaper (without freaking out!) I learned that most students will respond better if they think you care, and sometimes communicating that you care is more important than teaching them about Pygmallion. I greeted them at the door every day. I relaxed and laughed sometimes.

I poured my heart and soul into coaching. (I had an awesome co-coach, so when I say we, you know I mean her too) We did camp (taking along my breastfeeding 6 month old), we coached strategy (run really fast and don't get lost), we organized a trip to a race in California (minus my 9 month old), and we tried to organize indoor track.

Once, when a parent really ticked me off by claiming that I didn't spend enough time running with the kids, I figured out how much I made an hour coaching. It amounted to $2.63.

I loved it. I found my dream job. Those kids were so awesome.
At the end of my second year of teaching I quit. I felt like I could leave with some sense of dignity. I kept coaching though, for one more year until we moved. Someday, when my kids don't need me at home, so in about 20 years, I'll go back to coaching, and maybe, just maybe, I'll go back to teaching.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Soul Sucking

Why can I not figure out how to put my signature at the bottom?
Whoops, now I've deleted it. . . Oh well.
I'll try it again next time.

My first year of teaching high school sucked my soul dry. And then it ate the marrow of my bones.
I was hired to teach sophomore English and journalism when I went in to apply for a coaching job. One year out of college, fresh from a job as a personal assistant, I didn't have a teaching certificate. Now, it seems to me this should be a red flag when hiring a teacher, but apparently our school system is stretched so thin that if you are willing to coach and you have an English degree (and you are stupid and naive and will take whatever they throw at you), you too can teach English to teenagers who don't care and will hate you!
At my interview the assistant principal and principal looked over my resume and said, "We have an English teaching position open too."
"Oh." I said. "I don't have a teaching certificate."
"No problem," they said. I felt like someone with a black trenchcoat on was putting their arm around my shoulder while putting their finger to their lips.
An Alternative Routes to Licensure program would be my ticket to teaching while gaining a license. I wouldn't have to do student teaching, I would already be doing it while I took a few classes to gain the certificate.
Marvelous. I had never wanted to be a teacher. I majored in just English because I for sure was never taking a step into a classroom as a teacher.
People would ask me what I was going to do with my degree and I would shrug noncommittally. I was too embarrassed to admit that I wanted to be a writer (like that was some unrealistic dream on par with wanting to become the next President or an actress or Michael Jordan). And I didn't know how to become a writer. That got paid. So when I graduated I entered the realm of trying to find a job when you are totally unqualified for anything and have no connections.
I ended up working in a real estate office. I was changing the world and using that degree.

When I drove home from that interview, knowing that they would hire me as a coach, and an English teacher and I would be in charge of the school newspaper, I was euphoric.
So euphoric I ran a red light (while dreaming of my obedient and wonderful classes), and crashed into a really nice white car.
Good thing I would now have a teacher's salary to pay for my car repairs and higher insurance.

That first year was hell. That was the year I started swearing like a pirate. Out loud. (When I was sure no one could hear me.) I took all of my sick leave days-- not because I was sick, but because I couldn't face the idea of going back to the classroom. I was a good little sluffer though. I used my sick days to try and get ahead on correcting and lesson preparation. I had over 100 students that year. One girl threatened to sue me, the old cross country coach came back and tried to take over my job and turned the parents against me, I couldn't control my classrooms, I had no idea how to print a newspaper.

If I had a list of my students I think I would write them all personal notes of apology: "Dear Soandso, I'm sorry about your tenth grade year of English. I hope you weren't forever marred by my class and that you still read books sometimes."

But I could handle it. I could do it all by myself. I didn't need any help, and I certainly didn't need prayer or any of that stuff.
Thus the black hole of my soul. I still picture myself on the brink of a black hole, just barely getting one foot over the edge, pulling desperately to get that soul back. But I'm trying.

It started innocently enough
in a cliched room with cliched people
putting out a paper mache idea
"You can coach? Then you can teach."
I was awed by this belief in my power.
"Yes," I nodded, "yes, yes,"
and I wrapped the paper mache teacher's suit
around my frail skeleton of glued together knowledge,
nodding and shaking hands.
The first blow swung me out over the heads of 113 students.
Ahhh, a string, attached to my head pulled me back.
Another hit--70 hour work weeks--I am reeling
but somehow that string pulls me back.
Blow after blow, no computers, a crazy old man, angry parents, 806 papers,
The string somehow gets tighter,
I now strew pieces of battered crepe paper as I walk.
My shape has collapsed and I weakly bend my arms back into place
And crazily glue reinforcements on my legs.
One more hit
A staggering blow
And I am down, on my back.
The string pulls, always it pulls,
and slides me across the floor.
I crane my neck, and for a moment the string slackens and I can see this
String that pulls me and swings me-
It is taut again and my head is yanked back.
Once again, I am dangling-
By a String made up of Hope.

Next time: Why I will tell you that I liked teaching and loved coaching, even after it sucked my soul.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dear World

Dear World-
Here is my heart.
Without ink, it doesn't seem as poetic to write about my soul bleeding onto the page. Instead I will coldly tap, tap, tap away at the keyboard, hoping to raise some warmth, or some laughter, or some tears. And maybe I'll tap away enough that blood streams from my fingertips, so then you'll know my soul is bleeding out onto the computer keyboard. But then again, that would mess up the keyboard.
"The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium." ~Norbet Platt