2017: A retrospective

2017 has been a consistently, unyieldingly challenging year. I refer to it as a dumpster fire when discussing it with my friends, and we laugh, then agree that it was a safari of suckery for each of us.

It’s hard for me to reconcile this sufferfest with the ferocious beauty and freedom I have also experienced during this year though. The hurdles have been many, daily, but as a result I have been incredibly insistent on doing a lot more of things that please me in the time that is available. I have struggled, but I have also found strength around me to channel. I have cried, but I have also laughed.

Some snapshots that may or may not capture the juxtaposition of 2017:

-The heartbreak of leaving the city I loved, the students I loved, the friends I loved, the coworkers I loved, the California I loved for an ambivalent mystery.

-Sitting on horseback on the Fort Bragg coastline while rain pattered onto my face and rainshell, loving every savory moment.

-Watching the spring-green Yellowstone Valley fade into clouds from my window seat as my flight climbed above the low ceiling.

-Calling Mom and crying happy tears together when I tell her I got the job as an English teacher.

-Riding bikes from Montana into Idaho with Dad on the bluest and greenest day, needing to sit on towels for the drive back home because of the amount of mud caking our shorts and backs.

-Getting stung by a bee on my first climbing trip in Joshua Tree.

-Starving at the summit of the bike park after a couple rides with my friends, and eating the scraps from the tables of others while we waited for our burgers.

-Laying on the floor behind my desk at lunch so that the threatening tears would be held in place by gravity, or: tearing up in frustration and hearing a student whine, “Why is she always crying?”

-Flying into Palm Springs from the east and recognizing my school, home, friends’ homes, grocery store, dog park, preferred JTNP trails, and secret campgrounds from thousands of feet above and feeling a strange sense of place.

-Having an inebriated friend pull a thorn out of my ear with a knife two and half weeks after it unceremoniously lodged itself in my lobe during a desert tumble.

-Getting an email from a community member I admire stating he’d overheard his daughter praising me for genuinely caring about her.

-Enjoying twelve magical days of snowfall and snowplay with my parents for the holidays.

I have no specific hopes for 2018. In this chapter of my life, I aim to no longer be one who hopes or tries. I will be one who does.

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The Chasm of Doom

“Do shit that scares you” Volume 3

The sun was low in the sky and my carry-on bag for the morning remained unpacked. I texted Caileen to ask if we were going to yoga. She replied that if we jammed, we could make it into the park in time to catch the sunset from the Space Station. “On my way!” I shot back, closing my bedroom door with understanding that I would get to packing in an hour or so when I got home before then retiring to bed at a leisurely hour as befitting of someone beginning her travels at 3am. Ha!

We make it into Hidden Valley as the sun settles into the boulders. We climb a crack, traipse along a shelf, scramble down a series of bowls, and drop through a skylight into a wind-hollowed cave overlooking the campground. Inside, four men are already perched. The sky glows in shades of gold, coral orange, and purple as we make introductions and pass around a canteen of bold red.

All dirtbag climbers look the same, one could generalize. Their names are usually one syllable. Dave, Dan, Ben, Shane, Jim, Dill, Matt. Their puffers are patched with duct tape. Their approach shoes are weary. Their hair is either matted or disguised by a knit beanie. These are the nomads that call the JT campgrounds home during the winter months. They live in old pickups or sprinter vans. They hail from places like Palmer, Flagstaff, or Moab. They smell like dust, weed, and DGAF.

In the cave, we finish the wine and the sky grows dark. Climbers and Carolyn depart the way we arrived.

Caileen knows these people. As we walk around the campground, she sings and strums her guitar. From the darkness (do climbers not believe in campfires?), voices call out her name. Greetings are exchanged as old friends quickly rehash the months since paths have last crossed. I follow her, content to witness this culture at its most genuine.

The term “Chasm of Doom” begins to be tossed around in conversation. At each van and site we visit, more interest grows. It is 9pm and pitch dark. The moon will not rise until 6:55am and even then, it will be a New Moon. No one will appease my curious questioning about what we’re doing, but they are donning a suspicious amount of layers as evening progresses. (This is another lesson that I learn through observation: one dresses for the winter in the desert as one dresses for the winter in the heights.) My new friends are wrapped in shells, puffers, knit caps, and long pants. I am in yoga leggings, running shoes, and a fleece. I am like someone’s kid sister that not one knows what to do with. I have no idea how many there are, or who they are. In the dark, they are the same. I discern that at least two of the voices are female. We leave the campground on foot and head into the boulder fields across the valley. The glow from cigarettes is the only manmade light as far as we can see, discounting the twinkling planes overhead.

After scrambling up some boulders, under others, hand jamming a crack, and crawling through yucca, we gather in a sandy wash. There is back and forth. It is decided Caileen with lead the route. “This is ‘The Chasm of Doom’ and there are rules that must be followed” she calls out. “There will be no speaking and there will be no lights. Don’t lose your partner!” she commands, then disappears into the deeper darkness between two large monoliths. I don’t have a partner, but a dark form at the entrance makes sure that I am not the last of the group entering the void.

The darkness is absolute. The granite is weathered and rough. In my head, I acknowledge this could be terrifying and am thankful that darkness and confined spaces are not great fears of mine. Within the chasm, boulders large and small are jumbled together. Large spaces where I can stretch out my arms in both directions seeking guidance are punctuated by spaces so low and tight that we slither on hands and stomach. I twist my body into the spaces, and run my hands blindly along the granite looking for absence to indicate the direction of travel (or better yet, the puffer of the form in front of me to gently dance my fingers across in assurance that I am not alone). Time passes and the ascent becomes steep and technical. The group follows the mandate and uses no words or lights. In areas with challenges, they exchange grunts or gibberish to alert one another. Sometimes a spontaneous symphony of utterances echoes amongst the rocks and forms. I restrict myself to concentrated breathing and occasional apologies when I step on a hand, grasp an ankle, or snag a beanie. I can not tell if my eyes or opened or closed; I can not remember what light looks like. There is only black.

Some time after entering the darkness, we are all covered in granite dust and sand. I have been using my body as much as my hands to maneuver the labyrinth. As such, my legs are raw and bleeding and I can feel the glow of abrasions on my knees, butt cheeks, and hip bones. Granite is exceptionally rough and nylon leggings are akin to nothing. I am thrilled and can not keep a smile from my darkened face.

The group gets hung up, clustered high in the chasm. I have ended up behind a woman; her hands are soft and we hold fingertips in the dark. Behind me, there is also someone new. Invisible hands rest on my shoulder, hold onto my calf, pet my hair. The woman in front of me vanishes and a shower of granite sand falls onto my face. In front of me, there is only rock. Around me, there is only rock. Above me, there is nothing but then there is rock. The woman attempts to climb the chimney several times but is turned back by a lack of purchase, the individual ahead of her, snags, and God-knows-what. The grunts and mutterings of those around me are less playful and more frantic. Swear words filter from above and below. Fabric tears. Down flutters onto the faces and hands below. When it is my turn, I try to follow where I’d last felt her foot. I find a foothold and pull myself up. Crack! The darkness becomes glaringly bright, and I swear loudly. Below me, I hear the granite sand plinking onto rocks in a cascade. A hand from below squeezes my leg in reassurance. I apologize. I am more cautious. The only place I can find to escape the confines of the chimney feels smaller than my torso. I insert myself, twist, and manage to beach myself across a larger stone. My legs kick nothing. My hands feel nothing. I retreat back into the safety of the chimney and find a new space, slightly larger. I have to twist into a seated position then use my legs to push me up through a small opening. I am being born in the darkness. My gasps echo back to me.

Out of the birth canal (it’s really called that!), I am relieved to find a large open cavern. At the top, stars glitter. I scurry across a flatter boulder, feeling for the others. I find a bare foot and follow it up a leg. It giggles. “Are you a human?” I ask it. The darkness replies “I’m Old Gregg!” and laughter filters from other dark forms. The birth canal was challenging for everyone. We regroup in the lesser darkness of the clear night sky, laying across the tips of the monoliths. Caileen as the leader is long gone. Strangers surround me and their conversation is unfamiliar. I scatter jokes and quips into their speech and earn some laughter when I admit that the touching of and by strangers was my favorite part of the ascent. The stars overhead are incredibly bright and numerous. JT is proud of its Dark Sky Park designation, and on moonless nights like this, it is clear why the honor has been earned. The Geminids peaked on Wednesday but we still see many shooting stars in the time we are laying and watching.

Now that we are not in motion, I grow cold. The constellations we are watching have dropped considerably in the sky. I don’t want to whine amidst these intimidating strangers but some time after we arrive on the moon porch, I interject that I’m in leggings, and have an early flight. It works and the anonymous strangers allow their stargazing and visiting to be cut short.

Fortunately, the way out of the Chasm of Doom is not the same as the way in. We continue ascending boulders and slots and then take turns sliding our bodies through the descending slots and steps. Some drops were taller than we were, others were easier. I again followed the woman. We held hands, or I touched her shoulder, or stroked her hair. She tapped my legs and feet to indicate where I should step. I tried to return the favor, clasping the fingers of the hand behind me and communicating with nervous giggles. Rough fingers squeeze mine in reply.

We emerge into a new valley. The granite seemed to glow outside the darkness of the chasm, in spite of the moonless night. Caileen is laying on a slab singing a sad song. I curl my body against hers. Having gathered everyone and so being released from our vow of silence, we visit as we hike back down to the campground.

I get home after midnight. I shower in the hottest water I can tolerate. Gravel and granite dust swirl between my feet. I pack my gear for the trip into my carry-on, lay out the layers of outwear I can’t fit (I’ll wear all of it on the flights), and curl into bed with Scout. It is 1am.

I’m laying in the dark, too jazzed to sleep. I know that the minutes of available time are slipping away. I am reflective. I’d faced a host of fears, ranging from the primal to the trivial, and as a result had another exceptional desert experience. I will remember the thrill of the accomplishment, the acute discomfort of the rough stone and icy air, and the camaraderie of strangers in this situation always. I did shit that scared me, and it was awesome.

DSTSY

“Do shit that scares you” Volume 1

I can feel my skill on the bike increasing with each ride. I am walking less of the sandy washes. I am pushing my bike up fewer ascents. I am staying seated for more of the rock features. I’m uttering baby bird sounds of panic less frequently. I am feathering the front and back brakes like I know what I’m doing. I’m drifting corners intentionally rather than in squirrelly accident. I’m giggling more. Yet, I am alone more often than not. I’ve had friends along three times, run into others twice more. I make a point to ride there three times a week so there’s still a disparate amount of time where Scout and I are the sole proprietors of the bike trails. It scared me initially—all of it—but not anymore.

This Saturday, Joshua Tree received its first rain in 112 days. It wasn’t in the forecast but it drifted in from the Gorgonios and lingered through the morning. Though groggy and hungover, I threw Scout and the bike in the car and headed out to the conservation easement that the bike shop has been trail building within. The washes had already filled and emptied (I was disappointed to have missed the small tidal surge of the flood) but the drizzle persisted. Droplets pattered against my rainshell and helmet, dripping from my hair, gloved fingertips, handlebars, and visor. By the end, everything that wasn’t shielded by the shell was soaked; it was the most delightful discomfort I could imagine. There was dirt crusted on, and in, everything imaginable. The dirt though! The dirt was incredible. It was so tacky that I could cross even the longest, deepest washes without losing speed. I did laps on my usual trails but, the day being young and the rain being a dream-come-true, I followed new cutoffs and tried new lines. The wet dirt gave me such an illusion of competence and my heart was filled with such confidence that I tried a black trail. We flowed like water. I couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face if I tried. I’m still so jazzed at what I accomplished.

I love that I can feel such real growth in this area of my life when others feel stagnant. I love that it takes 100% mental and physical focus. I love that it’s something I can bond with others about, but is also something that my inner hermit can enjoy as an individual. I love how powerful it makes me feel.

Riding trails, especially alone, used to scare me but now I crave the experience. I get agitated when too long passes between rides. I am growing and it’s because I’m doing this thing. I’m doing this thing that scared me and now I can’t imagine my life without it. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, surely it involves the merit of doing shit that scares you.

“Do shit that scares you” Volume 2

This is the desert. I am laying under the winter stars. The Geminids are waning overhead. I am suspended in tepid water. I am tripping, but only a little. We all are. I am naked, but so are my friends. I am uncomfortable but the sensation of rocking, as in a hammock, is soothing and the darkness is insulating. Their voices rise and fall with the wind, discussing Werner Herzog and weather patterns and the merits of drinking a whole can of club soda. In my condition, I am content to listen to the sounds around and within me. It is December 16th. I am a new person from the one who existed on this date last year.

We emerge from the water; it has reached body temperature and is no longer a warm hug. In the moonlight, we grab our articles from around the tank and head back into the homestead. The string of christmas lights in the outhouse appear to flicker but it is just my pupils, doing as pupils do. In a fog, I shiver into my clothing: a double pair of leggings, wool socks, birkenstock sandals, a thermal shirt, a fleece. This is the desert in a nutshell and I embrace it, as she has me. Later, we sneak through the creosote to the neighboring homestead to borrow some fire wood. We stifle giggles as we trip over desert obstacles—Who put this tire, rock, stump, and/or fence post in our way?—but return with three armfuls and the knowledge that we will not freeze overnight. The mummy bags will help too. We make popcorn on the gas stove, season it with salts and exotic spices, shake it in a brown paper bag, and sit around an oriental rug to enjoy it. There is talk of a movie, but we listen to Violent Femme albums on vinyl instead. We argue over who has to get up and flip the vinyl.

This is the desert. This is my life now. I feel so aware of myself and the worlds I inhabit. I feel so attuned to the natural rhythms of life and light around me. The empathy is still crippling, but I am becoming better at investing my time with those that project positivity rather than the unadulterated angst and darkness that teenagers continue to emanate. The desert has few notable groups but there are three I regularly encounter: there are the teenagers, there are strong women, and there are thirsty men. I am now very well familiar with which demographic I prefer to spend my free time with, and which will attempt to rule me, and which wants me to rule them.

These are things that once scared me. In my pursuit of growth, I am trying more of the things that I’ve built walls towards and I am being rewarded by the authenticity of the experiences. Be scared, but don’t quit. Be scared, but accept growth. Do shit that scares you, but expect to be surprised by the outcome.

341/365

Did I just have the best day? It’s possible. Day 341 of 365. Way to sneak it in before the buzzer, 2017!

On Thursdays I teach mostly 7th grade classes plus one section of 8th grade. The odds are already stacked in favor of Thursdays. The 7th grade classes and I explored poetry styles relating to human connections with nature. In first period, as we were taking notes on the theme of beauty as shown in Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Enchanted Light,” a student asked, “Ms. Harmon, do you care about us?” Without thinking of any other possible response, I answered, “I love you guys; of course I care.” (Unfortunately, the student’s reply was, “Oh, because if you cared you wouldn’t be making us take notes…”) Even so, my sentiment was genuine and I’m happy I got an organic occasion to share the information with them. Even if they’re artistically-unappreciative punks, lol.

The classes today flew past. Even my period of 8th graders only bore witness to me shouting over their symphony of voices, like, twice. I dramatically crushed a timer that was habitually unreliable, much to their blood-lusty delight. They accomplished an appreciable amount of the lesson and even scored a class average of 90% on a quiz about The Drummer Boy of Shiloh. Who are these goons?!

I had so few behavioral concerns and finished today’s planning so quickly that I was able to leave work before 4. I raced home, threw the dog and some layers into the truck, and made it out to the conservation easement bordering JTNP 15 minutes before sundown. Scout and I pedaled out way up a fire road to a windy campsite overlooking the Morongo Basin to the north and the gateway to JT on the south. The strong wind enveloped us in the scent of desert flora (a welcome change from the odor of dust that usually lingers on the tongue). The sky faded through its evening watercolors as we raced back down the road. I swooped down the double track with Scout in the lead following the opposite lines in a graceful dance we’ve choreographed over many rides and near misses.

I was home and settling onto the couch in my pajama pants by 5:30. “What should we do now, Scout?” I asked my shadow. I hadn’t been home and without to-do list at this hour in many evenings. My phone rang. A coworker stated she was at the Inn having dinner and a drink if I was interested in joining. I liked that she didn’t pose it as a question. “Sorry, Scout!” I crowed as I slid back into my pants and threw a fleece over my shirt, slipping out the door. At a small table against the wall, Caileen and I shared a side salad, glasses of the house red, and the most enriching conversation. We laughed so hard we cried. We made plans for future rides and trips to Big Bear. We ordered desserts of chocolate mousse and vanilla ice cream, and enjoyed them by the heaping spoonful as the live musician played “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from the corner. Nearing 7, we hugged in the parking lot and sped off in our differing directions. I was home in my pajamas with Scout by 7:10.

This day is what I imagined adulthood could be like. I feel many things always but today I felt new things. I felt competent, and I felt professional. I felt confident, and I felt independent. I felt energized and rejuvenated. I felt relaxed. I felt like who I want to someday be. I felt how I hope more often to feel.

I feel like I’ve just had the best day.

Taylor Forever

Taylor Swift’s career has spanned much of my conscious years. I remember listening to her first album during high school, on the cd player in my Beetle or connected through the tape deck adaptor in my friend’s Mustang. We would play Tim McGraw as we sat on her boyfriend’s truck’s tailgate outside Wendy’s or in the gym parking lot. During Taylor’s “Fearless” years, I was in college. I saw her in concert when she opened for Brad Paisley and waited in the summer evening breeze to get her signature. “Speak Now” and “Red” arrived during those years as well. Her style shifted just enough between each album to continue to match with uncanny accuracy the rhythms my own life was setting. We took a break from each other. When our ways met again, “1989” was cresting in the pop charts and the narratives included in her tracks again matched the experiences and moods of my mid 20’s. And now, now she’s graced our ears with “Reputation.” Reputation is exactly what I needed to hear from her at this stage in my life.

I have long since walked away from country music, from love stories, from sweethearts, from pickup trucks and red dirt roads. So too has she.

I bought Reputation at a Target in Fresno as I drove my way up the state over the holidays. I listened to the album ceaselessly for the remainder of my time in the car for the following 7 days. As such, I feel quite qualified expressing my expert opinions and observations about the material. Buckle up.

Taylor is a lyrical genius but in addition, she also has an otherworldly ability to pair exactly the right musical accompaniment to the narrative. She knows exactly what she’s doing with every moment of her album and you feel that as you work your way through it. She includes traditional and new age pop elements, electronic beats, hints of trap and industrial rhythms. She manages also to hella successfully include bars by both Future and Ed Sheeran in a single song. She’s heavy on symbolism and theme. In one of my favorites, Taylor uses a getaway car as a masterful metaphor. Over the course of the album, she expresses confidence, vengeance, lust, love, regret, and optimism. She’s real. It’s fuckin’ fantastic.

Like most albums, there is one weak link. I reliably skip one track on this album and that’s “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” because, while it’s a phrase I utter nearly daily to my students, it’s just not a song I can get into. Every album has one though, so I’m not upset about it.

Thank you, T Swift. Thank you for putting music to this new stage in our lives. Thank you for being such a reliable springboard for me and others. Thank you for growing and maturing and trying new things. You and your music are a soundtrack I wouldn’t want to do without.

Kinda

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This is not totally accurate, but I laugh every time I see it reblogged.

Teaching continues to be my greatest challenge. I vowed to make it all of November without crying over work (especially AT work), and I made it until the 27th. SO CLOSE, GUYS. My new goal is to make it through December without crying… I don’t want to jinx anything, but there are only only 10 more school days this month.

Teaching has opened some fun new doors for me though. For instance, I have become a professional-level procrastinator. Today, instead of grading essays and creating progress reports, I bought an ugly Christmas sweater. I submitted reviews for several products I’ve recently acquired. I booked trips to Idaho, Tahoe, and Napa over the coming months.  I rented a SUV. I booked a hotel. I strung Christmas lights on one of my bikes in lieu of a tree. I bought a snowboard set on eBay. Then I bought a season pass to Big Bear. I can’t stop shopping?

Parts of life are hard. Parts of me struggle with motivation and follow-through. Other parts of life are richly rewarding. Other parts of me are excited for the future and encouraged by the possibilities that await. There is an uneasy balance here, but if 7 physical hours a week have to be spent with 8th graders, and 10 additional hours have to be spent dealing with related tasks, that still leaves a disproportionate amount of life each week that is spent with 7th graders, and self-selected activities, and wonder, and happiness.

Do I love my job? Kinda. But does it afford me the opportunity to do rad stuff and find joy in spite of the suck? Yeah, it kinda does.

Desert Jewels

The desert is a very pastel world. Rocks, sand, and dirt are all shades of tan or eggshell. Plants are pale green or light gray. Even the super blooms are masses of yellows and pinks. Spending a week back up north surrounded by vivid blues and greens, glaring whites, and endless blacks only affirmed how soft-hued my new world tends to be. There is, however, an incredibly reliable burst of intense color one can expect to see in the desert.

The sunrises and sunsets in the Mojave are nothing short of ridiculous. Like an apology, they bleed from the horizon in the brightest reds, oranges, pinks, and golds. After dawn, the sunrises fade into pastel blue. Following true dusk, the sunsets stain the sky a vivid purple.

They don’t draw everyone out to ogle and photograph; these phenomena are so reliable, people carry on with their lives like a rich tapestry isn’t being unfurled overhead. After eventually stopping attempting to document each, but even still falling victim to the allure on occasion, I have learned why life here continues in spite of the wonder overhead. No camera is capable of capturing the tones the sky is painting, so we just don’t bother. If it can be expected in a new and wondrous arrangement each day, why settle for a inferior facsimile on a small digital screen?

Even so, I want you to know. The desert has few draws but every single sunset has been the best sunset. Every single sunrise is the best sunrise. I feel confident saying that because I have happened to have seen them all over the last x months. Depending on the season, I’ve seen the sunrise on my jog, on my drive in to work, or from the quad at school. Depending on the season, I’ve seen the sunset from the school’s steps, above the dog park, on the trail, through my windshield, or glowing into my kitchen window.

Every element of the desert prides itself on its very pastelness; on its ability to withstand everything and continue to exist without notice. It is the way of this prehistoric environment. The sun makes sure to remind this matte world each day that it too has at least two bright jewels to offer its weary, dusty residents.

Home is [Northern] California

Home is a sentiment but I feel it strongest when I am elsewhere.

Last week I left the desert with the dawn and reached Chico 10 hours later at dusk as the sun set and the rain drizzled. My friends and I went out for fantastic pizza and shared a bottle of white, nestled in a booth in our winter jackets as the lights outside bled in the rain. Back at my Airbnb, Scout was curled into a cinnamon roll on my bed. It was a perfect evening.

In the morning, finding our plans in Yuba had been cancelled, Scout and I returned to Bidwell to revisit the scene of one of her more memorable shenanigans. The rain from the day before had left in the night and a low fog hung over the rim. The volcanic rock was running with rainwater; ephemeral waterfalls sang from the edges of the bluffs. I danced my way along the trail as Scout raced from puddle to pond to rivulet along the route. We hiked 10 miles before lunch. It was a beautiful experience that caused my heart to sing constantly with a harmonic refrain of mutual glee and grief. Scout was off leash the entire time and never caused me concern. I couldn’t have asked for a better day in Chico.

On Tuesday night, in a drive I could have done in my sleep, I swung up to Redding for the evening. Magnetically drawn, it should be no surprise that I found myself back. In the morning, Scout and I hit the road before 8. The pink and purple sunrise framing a cloud-draped Lassen was picture perfect. I sometimes forget the views I took for granted. The orchards and fog on the way back south were equally as scenic. It was getting old having my breath stolen by the scenes around me (she said sarcastically).

Scout and I arrived in Truckee after noon. Though some snow was clinging to the heights of Donner Pass, the Sierra was suspiciously bare. Scout and I spent many hours walking and hiking over the next few days there. We stayed in a home on the golf course which had open space connecting it to the Truckee River trail. We stomped boot tracks and paw prints all over those trails and fields. On Thanksgiving, Scout threw herself into the whitewater but nimbly climbed from the river without needing swift water rescue. When she emerged from the brush, her breath hung in an icy cloud around her alert eyes. We also hiked around Mount Judah at Sugarbowl and visited Donner Memorial State Park. We lived our best Northern California lives and fell into exhausted, cranky sleep in our bottom bunk each night. We missed the snow though. The ice rink at Northstar wasn’t yet open, the ice rink in town was closed, the resorts had delayed their opening days, and an uneasy anticipation hung over the area as visitors and locals alike waited on the forecast to bring the magic. Unfortunately, that magic wasn’t projected to arrive until Scout and I were long gone.

On Sunday, I was too angsty to sleep. Scout was restless too. We pretended to sleep from 2am onward but eventually accepted our fate and rose to begin our slog back south. The wind had risen in the night in advance of the storm system. By the time Scout and I reached the east edge of Lake Tahoe, pink clouds stained a moody velvet sky in advance of dawn. The wind-whipped white caps at Sand Harbor and the state park looked more akin to the Pacific than the beatific shores of memory. The wind would be our howling companion all day. (Also, the cool thing about heading due south for 10 hours is the sun is in your eyes from the moment it crests the horizon until it sets again.) We made the most of the Eastern Sierra journey though, since it had been a trip I had been wanting for a time. Mono Lake, June Lake, Convict Lake, Mammoth, Hot Creek, and various hot springs in the Owen valley were the highlights of the drive. Unfortunately, having passed the last location on my to-see list outside Lone Pine, checking the GPS revealed I still had 4 or more hours of quality car time ahead of me.

The allure was lost. From then onward, as 395 shrank into a two-lane highway, as 58 took me towards Barstow, and finally as 247 pulled me into the Mojave, I was mercilessly abused by a combination of the wind and a succession of aggressively slow moving trailers and motorhomes. It was a nightmare. I was angry about leaving my home of Northern California, I was upset about the lost time, I was anxious about the work week ahead of me, and I was exhausted from a combination of all the things. I unpacked and was asleep around 7pm, much to Scout’s disappointment.

Returning to Northern California was something I had looked forward to since April 8th when I strapped my bike onto the back of the Subaru, filled the gas tank at the last station outside Yuba City, and headed south into the rice fields. I’d left on a rainy spring afternoon and I returned on a rainy autumn eve 7 months later. Every day within those months had contained thoughts, dreams, and memories of the places, people, and experiences that’d composed my years. Returning was everything I had hoped. Northern California’s beauty and wonder was not a construct of my mind or memory. It’s real and it’s still there. If anything, besides breaking my heart, the brief interlude affirmed that “home” will only ever mean that area. I strengthened my resolve to make it back in whatever capacity I can. There are many sides of California, but that one is mine. That one is home.

Words

Whether or not northern indigenous languages contain a dozen (or dozens) of words for “snow,” we should take a cue from their linguistic largesse when considering our own.

It seems woefully lacking that the word love should mean the same thing in the phrase “I love nachos” as it does in the sentiment “I love you.” I mean it differently in each of these sentences; is any of them more valid than the others?

I love mountains.

I love my family.

I love my friends, near and far.

I love animals.

I love life.

I love him.

I love you.

I love Chipotle.

I love traveling.

I love the outdoors.

I love napping.

I love books.

I love Apple products.

I love….

The list could theoretically extend indefinitely. Each love is meant differently, however. Some include an attachment, be it physical or emotional; others involve a passion; still others contain an affinity or interest; some are likely to change and others are a part of my very identity. Why should all of these feelings be forced to share one verb?

In Inuit (or Yupik, or Sami, or various other northern dialects), the reason snow has so many linguistical variants isn’t that there are multiple words per se. Rather, there is a root word that is then developed further with an assortment of prefixes and affixes which build descriptively from the original essence into the necessary noun. In addition to that, this variety exists not for superfluous reasons but because language evolves to suit the ideas and needs of the culture that uses it. Language is dynamic; language will find a way to say what needs to be said.

Love is equally as dynamic. Maybe there once was just one love. Maybe it meant a feeling you couldn’t help. Maybe it meant a warmth inside your chest. Maybe it meant goosebumps or butterflies. Maybe it meant ‘looking forward to.’ Maybe it meant ‘can’t imagine life without.’ More likely though, these are the modern incantations of the term. At the time of the birth of modern languages, to have the luxury to love something was probably unthinkable. When survival is the priority, what room is there for sentiment? Love perhaps meant the feeling you had for something you could not live without. Maybe that is how it came to mean what we know it for now.

Even knowing that it’s perhaps a dated term, and accepting that I’m being overly pedantic about the whole thing, I wish I had more words to describe the feelings I have for the people and things that are meaningful.

I want a word to describe the deep, visceral attachment I feel towards mountains and forests. I want a word to describe the way my breath catches when I see the deep blue and green of an alpine lake. I want a word to describe how my family sometimes frustrates me but the mere thought that someday our ways will part eternally strangles me instantly. I want a word for spending years with someone and no longer knowing how to differentiate familiarity from desire. I want a word for knowing that someone will always be a part of your heart, regardless of contact. I want a word for someone that is lurking in your thoughts and influencing your actions. I want a word for that feeling of pleasure and purpose that a class full of earnest smiles and eager questions brings. I want a word for the feeling of relief I get when the final bell rings. I want a word for the camaraderie shared between those of similar minds, or those embroiled in shared suffering. I want a word for a food you never tire of. I want a word for tiramisu, and raspberries, and wild flowers. I want a word for the elation that moody, puffy clouds carry. I want a word for love. I want many more words for love.

I love words, but I want more.

Beauty

Life is about balance. I want to be mindful and aware that, in spite of hardship and struggle, beauty and peace also exist.

  1. 7th grade students – full of wonder and enthusiasm for life and learning
  2. Colleagues – wise and patient instructors of children and adults alike
  3. The night sky here – fiery layers of stars from dusk until dawn in a deeply dark bowl above and around me
  4. My family – implicit supporters in spite of the tears and fears
  5. The sunrise on the morning Steve left – sorbet layers of clouds and desert haze above the blue mountains
  6. The way the air shimmers after a windy day
  7. Tiramisu – light and creamy
  8. Scout’s caramel eyes – sparkling with love and excitement
  9. Clean sheets – crisp and cool; an embrace
  10. Tight pants – confidence
  11. Smoked gouda – guilty pleasure and favorite Farmer’s Market find
  12. Lemonade – acceptable substitute for water, which I miss
  13. Raisinettes – desk drawer treat
  14. Baby bunnies – everywhere, always
  15. Cooler mornings – a chance to wear sleeves and hoods on morning jogs
  16. Earlier sunsets – a welcome end to every day
  17. Heirloom tomatoes – colorful, firm, flavorful
  18. Roadrunners – Ridiculous dinosaurs
  19. Dog park friends – compadres
  20. Yoga classes – twisty, restorative me-time
  21. Raspberries – relics of wilder, wetter lands; tasting of sunshine and dirt
  22. Autumn in the San Bernardino National Forest – colors like northern home
  23. Southwestern food – a staple
  24. Weekend couch naps – essential recharging
  25. Books – sweet escape