A Walk in the Culturally Responsive Wilderness

The journey required to get to a climbing or mountaineering objective is called an approach. The approach is typically through lower-stakes, non-technical terrain, and often resembles a casual day hike, but is nonetheless a crucial step in the process. The approach is generally flat and mellow in a way that belies the challenges that exist.

My approach began unbeknownst to me in a small coastal suburb in Maine where I was a part of the 98.5% white majority. In this environment, cultural responsivity was not something I had to think about because almost everyone belonged to the same cultural group that I did. For the first sixteen years of my life, I traveled on this well-worn path, eyes on my own feet as I moved forward, able to carry on without having to come up against anything in my way.

When I turned sixteen, the trail disintegrated and I found myself facing a thick forest. I arrived in Chile alone, at night, picked up by a family who was speaking a strain of Spanish to me I could not decipher. Suddenly I was extremely aware of the terrain around me, aware of all of my skills and lack thereof, and felt exposed in a way I never had before. I was the only white, light-haired, light-eyed female in the entire city, and for the first time was singled out as “other,” receiving attention and feeling self-conscious like I’d never experienced. I was forced to look up, to pay attention, to engage with my cultural identity and how it differed from those around me.

When I was eighteen, I came across a boulder field with scree of varying sizes and shapes, stacked up on top of itself in a long maze of opportunities to sprain an ankle. I began college and instead of being surrounded by other white small-town, outdoors-minded Mainers, I was living and studying and socializing with people of all races and religious creeds, from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, with a large range of political beliefs. I had to come up against who I was, how I identified, and how that related to my friends and my classmates. I began a cultural exploration, attending Rosh Hashanah services with Jewish friends, picking up words and phrases in Russian from my roommate, and hearing about what it was like to grow up in the middle of New York from born and bred city-dwellers.

The first truly technical terrain I came across, a mixed pitch of rock and ice, requiring ropes and harnesses and helmets and complete concentration, arrived in the form of a summer spent volunteering in an orphanage in Chile the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I embarked on the experience wanting to improve my Spanish, spend more time in Chile, and work with children, and what I discovered were all of the things I had taken for granted during my approach. The trail had been flat, had been wide and clear and pleasant, and I hadn’t thought twice about it. Now, swinging ice axes into vertical icefalls and kicking steps with crampons to stay anchored to the wall, I was forced to interact with my identity, my beginnings, and how those differed greatly from the children I was caring for. Babies arriving only days old, parents unable to care for them, to be watched after by a large rotating cast of tias. Babies who were sick, abandoned, belonging to parents who were unable or unwilling to care for them. I thought of my own childhood, flat and even, and arrived at the orphanage each morning to care for children who were starting out on vertical walls of rock and ice.

The technical terrain continues here in Denver as I am tasked with teaching thirty-three tiny students who do not look or sound like me. I am aware of the notches and cracks that exist between us, of the ropes that connect us, of the distinct paths we have taken to arrive in the classroom together and of the common present experience that binds us. Despite the differences between us, there will always be common ground, there will always be some way to connect if we reach for it with our hands. We must proceed with the belief that everyone is trying his or her best, that everyone wishes to connect and relate to each other in the way they know how. We will stretch as far as our arms an legs allow and forgive one another when we fall short.

Despite having negotiated technical terrain before, there is still a sense of not being sure of my footing, of being nervous of falling, of not always feeling confident that I know how to handle a situation. What am I, as someone who had such a straightforward approach and who, even when the going gets tougher, has all the gear and tools to get where I want to go, allowed to say? What do I know of others’ experiences? What does my position and my prior experience allow me to speak to without overstepping?

After the approach and multiple pitches of varied terrain, you arrive on a ridgeline that continues out as far as the eye can see, and even farther than that. You do not reach a summit where there is nowhere else to go. There is no set trail and you are forced to do route finding and dead reckoning as you go. It is comprised of rolling ascents and descents, of knife edges, of scree fields and double fall lines and patches of snow—of challenges that will continue for as long as you do, constantly forcing you to assess and adjust and hone your skills in the hopes of navigating them with all possible flexibility, finesse, and grace.

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I remember the last time I saw him, in a bar in June when the air was thick and my mind was on other things. He had just gotten a haircut and was telling me about his plans for the summer, about going to Chile, a place that meant a great deal to me and so I leaned in against the noise around us to talk to him about it, standing up on the toes of my sandals and breathing him in. The bar was loud and the conversation was brief—we hugged at the end because he had just graduated and would be off, would be gone, would be away from this place. I sensed it might be the last time I would see him, but I thought it was because he had taken a job in Virginia and I was still in school, not because there would be water that was too cold and a boat that was too small and that heart of his that was too big, too brave.

The moment you find out someone has died and the moments that follow it are strange, and progress in distinct stages. It goes slowly at first, whole minutes go by where you are unable to process what you have heard, where you think that if you blink enough times or shake it off that you’ll be back at the kitchen table with your friends having a normal Friday night. There is this wanting to get back to that place of normalcy, of before in a desperate, grasping way. But after those first interminable minutes, everything happens fast, suddenly you are crying and calling people, suddenly the entire world around you has become the absence of this person. The life you were living before, just moments before, has changed completely, and you can’t get it back.

There’s this thing people say about grief, about how it comes in waves, about how you feel it with the force of a thousand pounds on your chest at certain moments and then at others you can allow it to blur so much that it feels as though nothing has actually happened. I think we feel grief like this because if it was constant, if it was real and heavy all the time we would not survive it, but if we are allowed even brief moments of forgetting, brief moments of relief, we may eventually be able to go on. But each time you gingerly bring yourself to stand again, and each time you realize with a crashing, dizzying sensation that you weren’t imagining things, that you weren’t wrong, you are knocked back down with a force that has not at all diminished.

In the days after Tyler died, I experienced these powerful waves of grief, but a strange, eerie guilt crept in alongside it. I had not known him well enough to cry the way I was crying, to ache the way I was aching. I felt self-conscious in my sadness, like at any moment someone would call me out for trying to involve myself in a death I had no right to be a part of.

To whom to the dead belong? To those who knew them best, who loved them most? Or to every person whose lives they touched, to everyone whose paths they ever crossed? Did I have the right to this grief, the right to his memory?

In all his twenty-three years, into which he seemed to stuff more life than most people knew how, I only figured into a small portion of moments, a handful, a drop in the bucket. Was I allowed to sit on the side of my bed, soaked from the rain, and cry so hard I couldn’t breathe? Did I have the right? Even though the memories of mine that contain him are bright and real and three-dimensional, they are not the memories of a family member or a best friend. They are of someone who knew him briefly, and only that. What right did I have to grieve so viscerally, to miss him with a sharp, stabbing ache that felt permanently lodged between my ribs?

I wasn’t crying because I had lost him, I was crying because the world had, crying because the space he had left behind was so vast, so palpable, that I think when he was gone everyone who had ever met him could feel it in their chest. I was crying because in that space left behind were all the people who never got to meet him, the people who would have filled the rest of the life he didn’t get to live.  I seemed to somehow take on the grief of people who would never even know they were heartbroken, who would live out their days never knowing they could have met him. Tyler was unlike anyone I have ever known, this glowing, vivid, unforgettable spirit that seemed to have life and happiness figured out in a way most people never get to. He was thoughtful and giving and kind and brave and the kind of person who you could spend an eight-day backpacking trip plus a handful of other moments with and be affected for the rest of your life.

Sometimes we have to invent ways to hold onto people. For days after he died and even sometimes still, when I look up and see sunlight streaming through the trees into my eyes, I tell myself it’s him, I can almost feel his warmth, almost hear the rumble of his laugh, almost see his deep, brown eyes crinkled into a smile. I have made this up to tell myself, made this up as a way to hold on to him, to hold on to him in a way I couldn’t when he was alive. He is more mine in his death than he was in his life, and the strangeness of that is sometimes striking and uncomfortable. But it is fitting, I think, that he would leave behind all these people, maybe even people he met for five minutes, who would try to hold on to him in some small way after he was gone. It was who he was in life, and it is who he is still.

The most powerful way people we’ve lost persist is not through the preservation of the memories they inhabit, but through the evocation of their aura in present action.  I think of him now when I feel my perspective has grown too narrow, when I have become too focused on little things, on things that don’t matter, on negatives or irritations or pettiness. I think of him, I think of the vastness of his soul, I think of the way he looked at the world for as long it was lucky enough to have him, and I am reminded of the way I want to live my life, of the way he lived his. And even though I knew him fleetingly, I count myself lucky to have known him at all, to have witnessed the brightness, the fullness, that it is possible for a human being to embody. I call on him, soaring around up there somewhere, to be with me when I need to be brave, or generous, or strong, or mindful, and his spirit seems to reverberate infinitely throughout the universe.

For Tyler Lorenzi, 1987-2011

Accepting The Change We Cannot Change

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When I was little, every time we would head back home after visiting my grandparents, my grandfather would come out into the driveway as we packed ourselves into the car, and get into his racing stance. He would do stretches, get down in a start position with his legs staggered and his arms up, a look of fierce determination on his face. We would watch him from the car, windows rolled down, dissolving into fits of giggles as if it were the first time we’d ever seen it before. When the car would pull out of the driveway and start down the street, he would take off, running next to us, pumping his arms, looking over at us every few seconds, with an expression of fury that the car seemed to be beating him in the race. He didn’t just take a few steps and then give up the joke, either—he usually stayed alongside the car until the end of the street, at which point we’d twist all the way around to wave to him out of the back window, where we could see him pretending to be bent over, defeated, and out of breath.  He did this every time we came to visit throughout our childhood and long past it, and somehow, even though we knew it was coming, we were always excited about it as we got into the car.

My grandfather hasn’t run alongside the car in years when we go to visit him and my grandmother in New Hampshire for Easter, and I haven’t thought about it in about as much time. He has spent the previous month suffering from shingles, taking high doses of medication to mitigate the pain he is experiencing. He is constantly frustrated–he can no longer drive because of the medication, and he is unable to make his weekly spin and strength training classes at the gym. Everything he is used to, everything that makes up his life, has been taken away from him. He is confined to the house, debilitated and discouraged.

He is unrecognizable, a shadow of himself. He nods off at the table, gushes nonsensically, and hardly touches his dinner. Before I leave, I go upstairs to his room to say goodbye, where he has retreated to take a nap. My grandmother goes in first, to wake him. As I round the corner of the top of the stairs, I catch a glimpse of him, lying in bed in his bathrobe, on top of the covers, unmoving. My grandmother tries to rouse him to say goodbye, but he is somewhere else, mumbling, not recognizing me.  He is eighty-two years old and I have not thought of him as old until this exact moment.

When I pull out of the driveway a few minutes later, I can’t help but picture him standing out on the street, getting ready to run alongside my car. The disparity between this familiar image and what I have just seen moments before is jarring, is something that stays with me the whole way home.

We are fooling ourselves if we think that there is an age where things settle, where we can expect circumstances to remain more or less the same. It is an easy to get lulled into a routine, to cling to the way things are at any given time and expect them or wish them to continue. But we are never safe, we are never at a point where we’ve put the changing behind us, or where we haven’t hit it yet. It comes whenever it wants, and living with any sense of rigidity, any insistence on a status quo will only lead to frantic, helpless panic when we realize that nothing ever stays the same.

I sit on the floor of my childhood room and I am not safe from it either. I have spent the two years since graduating college in three different countries and soon to be four U.S. states. The last eight months in Maine are the longest I’ve stayed in one place, and looking back now at the several month chunks doing different things in different places feels like just a long string of hellos and goodbyes, of acclimation and detachment, of settling in and transitioning out. Even now, looking around to identify what I will be taking with me to Colorado and what I will leave behind, I have not gotten used to it. It has not gotten easier. I have become attached to these circumstances and the upcoming change brings me to that frantic, helpless panic place.

Later in the evening on Easter, Pop-Pop is rushed to the hospital after being incoherent for hours. It is determined that he has been over-medicated for his shingles and his heart has suffered from the stress. He is taken to the emergency room, tests are run, and he is transferred to the ICU, where he has his vitals monitored and waits for his fever to go down. He stays there for days until he is finally discharged to a rehabilitation center for the elderly in order to do physical therapy and begin to heal. During this time, my mother reports that he continually expresses a desire for things to go back to the way they were, when he was healthy and mobile and fine. He sits in a hospital bed hooked up to machines and pines for a reality that no longer exists.

I took an introduction to Buddhism class in college right during the time when I was convinced that I never wanted to graduate. Everything was exactly the way I wanted it to be–I lived with all my friends, Chicago was the greatest city in the world, and I wanted to hold onto it all forever. I sat in a giant, gorgeously remodeled lecture hall and listened to the professor identify the four noble truths of Buddhism, a religion that, like almost all others, I felt fairly disconnected with. One of the truths that stuck out as particularly absurd to me was the notion that attachment causes suffering. It made sense, of course, but the idea of going through life without attachments seemed equally, if not more, unpleasant.

But I realized later that there are different kinds of attachments, some of which are worth the inevitable suffering they will incur, and some of which we need to let go of once and for all. Going through life without attaching yourself to other humans seems like a shortcut to suffering, and has been proven by many scientific studies to be highly linked to depression. It is an immutable fact that we will have to suffer through the death of every human we ever love, or they will have to suffer through ours. And yet few would argue that it is just better to attach yourself to no one. Love is almost always worth the inevitable suffering.

Attaching ourselves to circumstances, however, is where we bring suffering upon ourselves that is often not worth it. Things are constantly moving and shifting, and deciding that any one moment in time that the way things are is the only way we will be happy is asking to suffer. Be happy in your circumstances, but accept that they might change at any moment. Whether those circumstances have to do with a living situation, a job, a relationship status, a mood, the weather–they are all mutable. The only guarantee is that there is no guarantee. And when you find yourself in circumstances entirely different from what you had known, or what you were expecting, rather than fruitlessly agonizing over what you have lost, try to accept what is.

A month after being admitted to the rehab center, my grandfather is discharged and returns home with my grandmother. When I speak with him on the the phone that first night home, he has just taken a shower and gotten dressed without help, and I can hear the joy and relief in his voice. He is not thinking of the way things were, of the way things used to be, he is simply grateful for his present circumstances, that he is home and can do things like take a shower in his own bathroom and sit with my grandmother at the kitchen table. He tells me that he is going to follow the doctor’s instructions carefully, that he is going to take his time, that he is going to accept what he now can and cannot do. He is going to accept his current reality and live within it.

Change is something that is always coming, whether we are given advance warning or not. Sometimes it comes all at once, out of the blue, like a shingles diagnosis or a last minute trip to the emergency room, and other times it looms in front of us, like an impending cross-country move. But either way, it comes. We have to learn to control what we can, to adapt, to look at the shift as an opportunity rather than a loss. The way things are is only moments away from being the way things were, and the way things will be is just around the corner. The truth of that is fixed, but our reaction doesn’t have to be.

I struggle with that as I sit on the floor of my room, setting aside one bag of clothes and then stopping, thinking that maybe if my room looks like it always does then things will stay like they are, trying to ignore the change that is coming right at me, that has been approaching for months. I can panic all I want and that doesn’t slow time down, it doesn’t revert things back to a prior state. I can wait until the last minute to pack my things, but I will still have to pack them. Rather than clinging to the present I should exist in it, rather than dreading the future I should prepare to greet it.

When I was a child and living far away from my grandparents, they would call on the phone every so often to talk to me. I would play a game on the phone where I would pick a place in their house and tell them to go there. The places ranged from under the table, to behind the couch, to upstairs near the big plant in the hallway. I would instruct my grandparents to go there, wait a few seconds and then ask “Are you there??” into the phone. My grandmother would be on the telephone in the kitchen and my grandfather would have the cordless, and I would later find out that while my grandmother would enthusiastically confirm that she was, in fact, sitting under the table, my grandfather would actually go exactly where I told him. He went and sat under the table, went and hid behind the couch, went and stood near the plant in the hallway, just because I asked him to. He was the kind of grandfather who would go wherever his three year old granddaughter told him to over the phone, even though there was no way of her knowing that he hadn’t done it.

He might not be able to crawl under the kitchen table now and I would not get on the phone and ask him to. He is not in his sixties and I am not three years old. The times have changed, the situation has shifted, the reality we live in is not what it was before and it never will be again. But that doesn’t have to be a tragedy. He is still my grandfather and I am still his granddaughter. And both of us, experiencing our own lives change, can choose to detach from what was, can open up to what is and what will be, and can embrace the beauty that is present in our circumstances, that may look and sound and feel different than what we’re used to, but that is absolutely everywhere.

Flow State

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The sun was beating down on my head and I couldn’t move. There was nothing wrong with my body, no injury or physical impediment to speak of, but I stayed still, feeling unable to pick up my legs or arms, unable to shift my weight. I didn’t trust myself, didn’t have confidence in my tenuous position hanging on to the slushy spring snow of the headwall. I was not in actual danger, at least not at that particular moment. My feet were securely balanced on well-established footholds, my body weight was leaning into the snow, my hands shoved into the mush. I lifted one leg up, testing out what it would feel like to kick my boot up to the next foothold and shift my weight onto that leg, to push myself up a little higher, and immediately brought it back down, returning to my original position. The next foothold was too high up, the transition of weight too much of a stretch. I looked up above me as my companions climbed higher and higher, the distance between us growing greater. I had no interest in looking down, back into the bowl below, where other skiers making the ascent behind me looked like pebbles in an immense snowfield.

I paused to take a few breaths, to calm my mind and think about what to do next. We had hiked up far enough that we were now on the headwall, a section where the climbing was so steep we had to abandon the use of our poles and essentially move using our hands, knees, and feet instead. Turning back at this point would be more dangerous than continuing forward–it wasn’t an option. Trying to click into my skis at this grade of slope would also be too risky. The only choice was to keep moving upward, up over the lip of the bowl and onto the gentler slope of the snowfield above. I knew this, logically, but I still couldn’t move my boot up to the next foothold. The fear was visceral, and I felt pathetic. I was frozen.

A little over a year before I found myself clinging to the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I was lying on my stomach in a tent in Patagonia, listening to the rain beat down on the ceiling and reading by headlamp. I had downloaded Flow on my kindle before leaving on my month-long trip through Argentina and was just getting around to reading it now that inclement weather had set in. For something that was fairly scientific and dry, the book had me strangely riveted—it was all about this concept of “optimal experience,”  of a state of being that author and University of Chicago psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues is the key to happiness. I instantly connected with what Csikszentmihalyi was talking about—a state of being where you were so focused on what you were doing that the world around you seemed to fall away—an almost trance-like state where you are doing something purely for the sake of doing it. I thought of how I feel when I run, or hike, or write sometimes, or even when I get hyper-absorbed in a task as simple as peeling a clementine. Time falls away, you get lost in the rhythm of the task, and external worries or stresses seem to grow quiet.  Often even the sense of personal identity fades into the background–there is only the task before you. There is only movement.

Back on the headwall, I still wasn’t moving at all.  Gripping the grainy snow with my fingers and toes, I was absolutely concentrated on nothing but keeping myself anchored to the mountain, but I wasn’t feeling particularly happy or fulfilled. The focus was certainly there, but what I was learning as the seconds ticked away and I still hadn’t moved my boot from its foothold was that it is not just the focus alone that produces flow. There are two crucial factors that will only produce a flow state when both are present at high and complementary levels: challenge and skill.

What Ueli Steck, the Swiss mountaineer, experiences when attempting first ascents in record times is flow, because a high level of skill is being brought to a challenging situation. If either factor slides too far in either direction, the flow state is lost. Put Steck on a high school rock wall and the only state he’d be in would be a state of boredom. Put me on the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine, and I am in a state of anxiety. What I had to do and what I felt capable of doing were disproportionate. The fact that I had only a month of mountaineering experience under my belt, that I was not equipped with crampons or an ice axe, and that the steps had been kicked by people considerably taller than me were all factors equaling a deficiency on the skill side of the equation. And so I wasn’t flowing–I was freaking out.

Steck has said of climbing, “You just see your hands, your ice axe, and your crampons…and they have to just move.” And indeed, it is as simple as that. It was as simple as that for me too, clinging to the headwall. I couldn’t go back, I couldn’t stay where I was–I had to move. But I needed to adjust the challenge to fit my skill, I needed to slide down the scale so that the disparity wasn’t so glaring. I couldn’t change the grade of the slope, I couldn’t conjure an ice axe and crampons out of thin air–but I could kick smaller steps. So I lifted my leg up again, and this time, instead of reaching for the foothold that was waist-high in the snow in front of me, I kicked a new one in at knee- level, and stepped up onto it. And just like that, I was a little higher. I had moved forward. I focused back in on nothing but the soundness of my steps and of the placement of my body weight. The bowl around me ceased to exist except for the square of snow I could see in front of me. And in that quiet, in that focus, I tapped into that ancient state that was all rhythm, all movement. My entire life, in that moment, was just placing each foot in the snow and shifting my weight up. That task filled all the spaces, expanded itself to become my entire present universe. And so I was lost in the flow, and before I knew it I had crested the lip of the headwall and arrived at the gently sloped snowfield above.

Csikszentmihalyi challenges the common assumption that we are most content in our times of leisure–that finding ourselves in a reclining chair on a sandy beach would be the pinnacle of human happiness. He outlines the important difference between pleasure and enjoyment, a distinction that we often forget to consider. The key difference between pleasure and enjoyment is the amount of challenge that is involved. We get pleasure from lying in the sun, but we do not get enjoyment. Pleasure is lovely in the moment, but it is a not a lasting happiness. Enjoyment comes from something that challenges us, from something that may not be at all pleasant in the moment, but that makes us more complex as a person for having experienced it–that pushes us beyond what we expected. Pleasure was cracking open a cold beer on the floor of the bowl after a day of skiing, enjoyment was having climbed up the headwall and skied two difficult runs successfully.

The most important point that Csikszentmihalyi drives home in Flow  is that we can achieve the state through any activity, in any moment of our lives as long as we cultivate the right mindset. You don’t have to climb up a steep, snowy headwall to access it.  In the thousands of interviews Csikszentmihalyi conducted, it was clear that the happiest people were able to enter into a state of flow doing just about anything–even people who had what would appear to be mind-numbing assembly line jobs or who had extremely adverse life circumstances. The key was to constantly keep the level of challenge up, to continually improve one’s skills.  And the best part–we are completely in control of both of those things. We can either up the external challenge–find steeper, higher mountains to climb, or we can adjust the self-imposed challenge–go faster, kick better steps, move more gracefully. Or, if we find ourselves in a situation whose challenge is above our skill level–we can adjust it by breaking it down into pieces, by taking smaller steps. By keeping the level of challenge appropriate to our skill level, we can steadily gain the confidence it requires to continue to push farther, reach higher. And by doing this, Csikszentmihalyi argues, we can achieve complex, genuine happiness, no matter where we are or what we’re doing.

In the car on the way home from New Hampshire I felt the warm, fuzzy tiredness that you can only get after a day out in the cold. My muscles were sore, a sunburn had started to settle into my cheeks and I was in desperate need of a shower, but it all somehow equaled this smooth, deep contentment. We all kept saying what a great day it had been, a perfect day, and despite my bout of terror on the headwall, I really, truly meant it. The challenge, the exertion, and even the fear had brought about this golden afterglow, this feeling of having really done something. Of hitting a wall and pushing through it. Of getting to the top, coming back down, and despite everything wanting to do it all over again. I felt the golden electricity emanate from the core of my being and flow through the rest of my body, fill the whole car, and echo out into the mountains around us.

 

 

photo credit to Geoff Bell. 

Step Up

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People have different strategies for climbing mountains.  Some people like to talk to each other to pass the time, others like to zone out into a trance-like rhythm. Some people like to constantly check in with their overall progress when they are climbing something, keeping the goal visible on the horizon, and others like to focus only on their immediate future. But there is really only one way a mountain can be climbed, and that is by taking a step. And then another step. And another step. One by one, all the way up.

Looking all the way up at a peak looming many, many steps up ahead of me never ceased to discourage me, to remind me of how far I had to go, and suddenly when faced with the sheer number of steps that lie between me and the end, each step felt more difficult, more exhausting. What I tried to do instead was to look down at the ground below me, to focus on just the step I was taking and the one after it, to concentrate on my footing, to get into a comfortable breathing pattern, to break up the big task ahead of me into small tasks. Right that second, I wasn’t climbing a mountain. I was putting a foot forward. And I found that when I hiked this way, before I knew it I would glance up and realize that I had reached the top. That what had seemed so overwhelming, when broken down into steps, was actually quite manageable.

Entering adulthood feels a little bit like suddenly finding yourself at the base of a giant, looming peak that you are expected to climb.  Figure out what you want to do. Get a job. Find an apartment. Be financially independent. Succeed in your field. Have a social life. Travel. These are all types of terrain you will be expected to successfully navigate before you reach “Adulthood.” And when you look at all of them at once, stacked one on top of the other, towering in a massive heap above you, it’s enough to make you want to shrug off your pack and take an extended water break. Or have continuous panic attacks about what you are expected to do. But the bottom line is—you’ve got to climb the mountain.

You can’t take all the steps at once. You can’t climb up the grassy low-angle incline and through the boulder field and up the steeps all at once. You take one step. And then you take another step. That is how you climb mountains. That is how you do anything. By focusing on doing the one thing you can—the thing right in front of you. Start from the beginning. Break it into pieces. Don’t forget about the mountain, but don’t focus on its immensity so much that you are paralyzed, unable to take even a single step forward. Break the mountain down into what it is—a series of steps.

It feels sometimes like we are expected to have a complete route plotted out from the beginning, that we are expected to know exactly where we want to go and how we’re going to get there. We’re supposed to be able to list our passions and our skills, we’re suppose to be able to find a job using the degree we earned, we’re supposed to be able to live somewhere cool and surround ourselves with friends, we’re supposed to constantly embark on new and awesome adventures, we’re supposed to establish ourselves in the field we want to be in and continue to rise through it, we’re supposed to be happy and sure of ourselves, we’re supposed to have enough money to pay our rent and take trips and have gym memberships and buy drinks and Christmas presents. We’re supposed to have it together, or at least look like we do.

And trying to make all of that happen at once, trying to achieve all those things so that we feel like we’ve succeeded, so that we can have an acceptable, ready-made answer to the “So, what are you up to?” that we’re constantly getting from friends and acquaintances and relatives, is like trying to climb an entire mountain all at once. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t look up at the thousands of feet of elevation gain you have to somehow cover and dissolve into a panicky, avoidant puddle of fear and self-doubt. If you’re getting vertigo from staring at the far off peak above you, look down. Look down at your feet. Look down at where you have to go now, not where you have to go 2,000 vertical feet from now. Think about the first step, not about all the steps. Where are you going to put your foot now. What is directly in front of you, what is the best way to scale the terrain you are standing on. Maybe the first step is figuring out where you want to live. Maybe it’s getting a job, any job, that will allow you to save enough money to get you where you want to go. Maybe it’s having a good long think about what you love, about what you’re good at, about what you might be interested in doing.  It’ll be different for everyone, but picking one thing and doing it is better than thinking about 25 things and doing nothing.

In Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth, the spiritual teacher and author urges readers to focus on the present moment of their lives and not dwell on the past or worry about the future. He also talks about breaking things down into steps, and not just during the transition into adulthood, but throughout our entire lives:

“Realiz[e] that your entire life journey ultimately consists of the step you are taking at this moment. There is 

always only this one step, and so you give it your fullest attention. This doesn’t mean you don’t know where you are going; it just means this step is primary, the destination secondary. And what you encounter at your

destination once you get there depends on the quality of this one step…what the future holds for you depends 

on your state of consciousness now.”

The quality of your steps matter. The thought that goes into each one, the planning, the strategizing, the effort, the heart. A bad step early on could mean ankle pain for the rest of the hike, could dent your resolve or your courage or your self-esteem. The quality of this step, of the step in front of you, of the only step you’ll ever have, will define the quality of the entire journey—will get you from the bottom of the mountain to the top of it. And if you’re walking right now and thinking about the steep switchbacks up ahead, you might lose concentration and trip or twist your ankle or fall. Worrying about future steps weakens the step you are taking now. You will get to those steps when you get to them, as you got to this one when you got to it.

If you are trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, stop right there. Life is this absurdly vast, Himalayan-sized mountain range that goes on for miles and miles and miles that no one has ever figured out. Don’t try to figure out what you’re going to do with your life, figure out what you’re going to do right now. Figure out what it is you want, and the steps you have to take to get there. And then take the first one. Just the first one. The second one will come in its due time. Not every step is the same, not every step is easy. Sometimes you have to jump a little, sometimes you have to get your feet wet, sometimes you have to just get down on your hands and knees and crawl. But all the steps you take, especially the difficult ones, make you a better mountain climber.

There will always be mountains ahead of us. Ranges upon ranges stacked one in front of another as far as the eye can see, until the end of our days. You reach the top only to continue climbing. And thinking about it all at once, thinking about the length and the vastness of the journey ahead is too much. It’s not productive. We are not meant to process it all at once, to think of all of the things we want to accomplish and try to make them happen all at once. Take a step, then take another. That’s all any of it will ever be, that’s all we’ll ever have to do. And little by little, we’ll find ourselves traipsing through forests, fording rivers, stomping through snow, rock hopping through scree fields, standing on top of peaks, walking along ridgelines. Little by little, we’ll get where we want to go.

Warmth

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The hardest part was always getting out of the sleeping bag. Every morning in New Zealand I’d wake up, cocooned in my own little heat burrito, and want to snuggle as far into the puffy synthetic lining as I could. The last thing I wanted to do was emerge out into the cold, take off my layers, put on my frozen-solid boots and socks and start to hike uphill. It seemed infinitely the better choice to roll back over and drift into that delicious kind of second-sleep you get when you ignore your alarm. It was comfortable in the sleeping bag, and I didn’t want to leave.

We delayed it as long as we could. We cooked breakfast in the vestibule of the tent, unzipping the inner door and sitting with our puffy coats on and our sleeping bags around our waists, trying to glean a little heat from the stove, or put ourselves in the path of the steam coming off the boiling water. I stayed in my sleeping bag to change out of my sleep clothes and into my hiking clothes, to deflate and roll up my sleeping pad, to pack my equipment into my backpack.  We delayed, we hung there, clinging to the comfort until we could finally avoid it no longer—we had to leave the warmth and venture out into the morning and what awaited us.

Being comfortable is stealthily dangerous, a silent killer. Being comfortable is nice, it’s easy.  Staying in your sleeping bag in the morning is nice, but it’s never going to be more than that. It’s never going to be dizzying or staggering or make your chest burn. It tops out at this perfectly lovely level of fine that gets stale after a little while. In many ways, it is worse for things to be nice and easy than to be bad. When things are bad, there is motivation for change. There is an impetus for movement. You are likely to strive for something better, for something different.  The unpleasantness of your circumstances makes this the obvious and only thing to do. But when things are nice and easy, that momentum is absent. There is nothing that is propelling forward motion. It is easy to be lulled into nice and easy, into comfortable, and to stay there well past the moment we needed to leave. When things are bad, when we have to fight through to make things better, we at least gain the experience of struggle, we are at least strengthened by the process. We get nothing from being comfortable.

On the morning of October 26, 2012, we woke up at 3:30am on a glacier.  The past 48 hours had been a grueling series of mental and physical trials that had left me drained and discouraged. Two nights before, we had stayed up through the night to brace our tent against 120 kilometer an hour winds that barreled down off the mountains and into the tunnel we were camped in. Every hour one of us would venture out into the frigid, unforgiving night and try to use one of the knots we’d learned to tie the snapped guy lines back together while we could still feel our fingers. The next day we’d had to hike several kilometers uphill onto the glacier, postholing through hip-deep slushy snow the entire way. When we finally arrived at the spot we’d planned to camp at, we had to spend the next four hours probing out a perimeter, building tent platforms and snow walls to protect our tents. Glacier camping required a far more elaborate camp-making process than just tenting on snow. By the time we ate dinner, it was 8pm and dark, and we crawled into our sleeping bags immediately afterwards, wasted of energy, huddling together to try to stay warm. It was at 3:30 after that night that we woke up, put on our crampons, headlamps, harnesses and avalanche transceivers, roped ourselves together in groups of four, and began to ascend Ashburton Glacier.

Others talked about it afterwards as one of their favorite memories of our time in the Arrowsmiths, the stars glinting above our heads, the silence of the sprawling wilderness pounding in our ears, the crunch of the ice beneath our feet, the glow of the headlamps up ahead, our rope teams like tiny constellations in the snow.

It was one of my worst mornings out in the field. I was weak and lethargic and miserable. It didn’t matter that we were on our way to summitting our first peak, that we were climbing on a glacier, that the peachy pink alpine glow was starting to hit the crests of the mountains above us as the sun prepared to emerge. I was sweating and freezing at the same time, my legs felt like crepe paper beneath me, and all I could think of was the warmth of my sleeping bag that I’d left behind.  With each taxing, carefully placed footstep, I was longing for nice and easy.

Too often we allow ourselves to settle for nice and easy, to settle for comfortable because we are trying to avoid the struggle. We are trying to avoid the difficulty. We are trying to avoid moving uphill in the dark and cold. We think that by not struggling, by not making ourselves get out of the warm sleeping bag, that we are doing ourselves a favor. That we are avoiding suffering. That we are happy. We think that nice and easy is something to aim for, something to aspire to. We allow ourselves to think that being comfortable and avoiding unpleasantness is as good as it gets.

It is an indulgence, an allowance, and the longer we let it go on, the more difficult it is to free ourselves from its grasp. The longer you remain in the cocoon of warmth, the less appealing leaving it becomes. We can convince ourselves that there’s no reason to move, no reason to change, no reason to bother ourselves, to upset the loveliness. The more complacent we become in the arms of nice and easy, the more sleepy and bewitched the simplicity makes us, the more we are selling ourselves short. The more we are settling. Nice and easy feels good but it doesn’t make us better.

Just before 7:30 am, we angled to the right to attempt the final pitch of our climb, our bid for the summit. Light had drenched our surroundings, the sun punching through a high-hanging layer of fleecy clouds in orange and gold. My rope team had been the first to leave camp hours before and we were the first to climb, one by one, onto the snowy knife-edge that jutted 2,236 meters into the sky.  We carefully removed our packs, planted our trekking poles in the snow and kicked out seats for ourselves, watching the others gain the final few meters of elevation to meet us. And though for the entire morning I hadn’t felt capable or energetic or enthusiastic, as I sat perched on the uppermost ridge of the glacier, I was filled with an elation, a sense of accomplishment and pride that seemed to overwrite all the struggling I’d done to arrive here. I wouldn’t have crawled back into that sleeping bag for anything. From our camp below we could see the mountains directly next to us, projecting directly up like saw-toothed walls. From the tip of 2236 I looked out at mountains as far as I could see in every direction, ranges beyond ranges stacking themselves in never ending snow-capped tiers.

I often have to remind myself in memory that the morning wasn’t just this unbelievable victory, but actually a fairly dismal endeavor up until the final moments. But sometimes you forget that when you look back. It was a struggle, and that was an important aspect of it, but you don’t get the sunrise over the mountains, you don’t get the soaring ecstasy if you stay comfortable in your sleeping bag with your eyes closed. You have to get out in the cold, you have to climb uphill, you have to work through your exhaustion and your bad attitude. You have to push yourself. You can’t stay still, and it’s not fine or easy. Not at the beginning or the middle or the end. You get the full range of the spectrum, from freezing and miserable to towering and triumphant. None of it’s easy and none of it’s fine. It’s worse than fine and it’s also better than fine. Stunningly, unimaginably, overwhelmingly better.

It would be simpler to settle for nice and easy, to stay in the sleeping bag. There is immediate gratification, there is warmth. There is no struggling, there is no discomfort, there is no discouragement. But there is also no triumph. There is no awe, no unbridled joy or boundless beauty. It doesn’t push you, it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t propel your life forward in a way you never imagined.

And even if life can’t be that sprawling and blinding and ignited all the time, even if you have to spend an overwhelming amount of time in the trudging-uphill-in-the-cold-and-dark part, once you know that kind of life exists, you will never be able to stop chasing it. A life that challenges you and astounds you and demands of you everything you’ve got and then a little bit more. A life that’s sprawling and expansive and extraordinary.

Because there is a different kind of warmth, a kind that doesn’t come from wrapping yourself in down or synthetic fill, a kind of warmth that you create, that emanates from the deepest part of you, that stings and tingles and makes it a little hard to breathe.  It’s the radiance of the newly-risen sun on your face, the burn of exertion in your muscles, the glow of the bright white light in the hollows of your chest. It’s real and it’s attainable. But you have to get out of the sleeping bag.

The Fear of Missing Our Youth

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I was driving on Route 16 between New Hampshire and Maine the other day, ferrying my co-workers from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lakes of the Clouds hut to my house in Rangeley for a night of relaxation after closing the backcountry hut for the season. The sparsely populated woodland highway was pitch dark, we had already seen three moose come out onto the road, and we were talking about our fears. Two seemed to be louder than the rest: the fear of settling down and the fear of not having enough time to do everything we wanted. What if there wasn’t enough time? What if the adventure came to an end before we wanted it to? These fears, palpable and real to everyone in the car, all of us twenty-two and twenty-three years old, echoed out into the blackness of the night. Out to the rest of our generation. To the rest of the people who are living in what is this dynamic, limitless, thrilling, terrifying decade of our lives. In this decade we are constantly being told we’re too young to know what to do with. That seems to elicit wistful sighs and a stream of “if I had onlys” from people who have long passed it.

What are we supposed to do with that? What is supposed to be a helpful bit of advice from the older and wiser ends up feeling like an enormous amount of pressure to do everything, see everything, go everywhere, and meet everyone. They didn’t take take enough risks, they didn’t travel enough, they didn’t maximize their youth. But we, we are here. We are in it. We have the opportunity to do it right. And it feels like every second counts.

When I graduated from college I did not feel paralyzed by the fear of not knowing what to do with my life, I felt overwhelmed by the many, sprawling, myriad things I wanted to do. That I would not be able to make my life as big as I felt it needed to be. That like Ray says in The Dharma Bums “life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted,” and that was amazing and terrifying and overwhelming all at once.

As we wound around the curves of the road, an asphalt corridor through rows and rows of pine trees, we talked about the things we wanted to do and the places we wanted to go and the people we wanted to be. Of the adventures we wanted to have. Of the things we wanted to accomplish. And I began to wonder then if the moment of history we are experiencing our twenties in is heightening this grass-is-always-greener mentality that seemed to be prevalent among my peers. Or at the very least, the-grass-is-green-over-there-too. We live in an age where every cool thing we ever do is immediately disseminated through social media to all of our friends and acquaintances, and so more than ever we are aware of the stunning array of options that exist out in the universe. Why be satisfied with working in a backcountry hut in the heart of the White Mountains when you realize at that very moment you could be ski instructing in Argentina or working in a bakery in Big Sur or thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail?

The world in its present state of technological advancement has given us the ability to do many things at once, to be reading and talking and watching and communicating all at the same time. We are encouraged not to choose, to cram as many things into one moment as possible, and this mindset seems to have leaked into other areas of our lives. Suddenly the idea of doing only one thing, of living only one place, of being with only one person seems like we are limiting ourselves unnecessarily—seems like a trap. And so suddenly we are beset with this powerful, real, and yet only recently coined emotion: FOMO—the fear of missing out.

I have often felt the panic of FOMO on a life-level—that there are inevitably a million things I could be doing that are a far better use of my time than what I am doing at present. I have felt this despite loving what I was doing at the moment of feeling this way. And this is where our desire to seize the day, to climb every mountain, to take advantage of the freedom of our youth begins to backfire.

A study by British psychologist Andrew Przybylski was published earlier this year about the negative effect of FOMO on life satisfaction. Pryzbylski found that the fear of missing out was linked to lesser feelings of autonomy, competence, connectedness, and satisfcation in peoples’ daily lives. So while we may believe that by attempting to do as many things at once we are getting the best of our twenties or our lives, it is possible that this mentality, this constantly thinking of other things we could be doing or other places we could be living is in fact, detrimental to whatever experience we are currently having. Were we better able to focus on being in one place doing one thing and being satisfied with that, we might not feel this great, driving restlessness. Spending your twenties worrying about not being able to fully take advantage of them is almost the same as failing to take advantage of them at all.

Maybe the issue we’ve come head to head with is that we are living in a time that seems to emphasize quantity over quality. That it is more important to do many things than to do one thing well, one thing mindfully, one thing with your whole self. Perhaps our generation has found a new way to miss out on the opportunities of our youth—not by not seizing them, but by being so distracted during them that we fail to seize them properly. It is lifestyle ADD, large-scale multitasking. And it isn’t heeding the advice of those who have come before us. It isn’t making us happier or better.

And so I let my hands settle on the wheel, focusing on the voices of my friends near me, on the stillness of the night around us, on the Maine border just up the road ahead, on the healthy, twenty-three year old heart beating in my chest, and on nothing else. And I didn’t feel like I was missing anything at all.

A Year In Review

I remember sitting on the plane to New Zealand with the distinct feeling that this was the beginning of the rest of it, the beginning of everything that came after the linear formula of youth. I was sitting alone in the middle seat, pointed toward a side of the world I’d never been before, pointed away from everything I had known up until that moment. The tingle of giddy excitement and anxious terror that heralds adventure shot up through my fingers as I gripped the armrest, watching Boston disappear below me. It was all out there, waiting. Yet to be.

I remembered this moment viscerally flying back to the United States from Chile last week, how it had felt to be on the verge. On the verge of everything that had just happened. It felt like the end in some strange way, though of course it was not. It was the end of the first year, maybe, but as always things would keep moving and something else would be next. I had that strange feeling I often get that time that had passed and the things that had happened between the two flights could not possibly map onto each other. I remembered that flight to Auckland like I had just gotten off it, and yet thinking of everything that had occurred between then and now made it seem like a distant memory.

I remember one afternoon in New Zealand when we were stranded at an organic farm in the Marlborough Sounds for a few days and after a false-start launch delayed by surly-looking storm clouds, we all took a hike around the cove. The trail was damp from days of rain and surrounded by dark, heavy pines and Justine was talking about Japhy, the main character from The Dharma Bums, a book she tried to read at least once a year. We walked back to the large sheep barn we were taking shelter in and Justine realized she’d lost her camera. She had insisted on going back for it alone, even though it was a long walk and it had started to rain, and not till months later when I met Japhy on the pages of The Dharma Bums did I understand why Justine came back a while later from her solitary walk, soaking wet and smiling so big it filled the entire barn.

I remember sitting in a hostel in Argentina with Marielle, using my Speedy Stitch to do surgery on the fraying back of my ever-present travel companion Bag of Wonders. She shook her head at me and told me to just buy a new purse while I tried to recall the steps that Colt had taught me after having to repair his backpack hip strap and various parts of our tent in the Arrowsmiths. I remembered his tall frame hunched over in our tent, parked on the banks of a river, making sure each stitch was even, slipping into his goofy seamstress alter-ego to amuse Connor and me while we tried to put away our third bowls of cold rice. I remember looking down at my own stitches on Bag of Wonders and knowing I was light years away from matching Colt’s handiwork, but that at the very least I was able to prevent my valuables from falling to the sidewalk through a fist-sized hole in the bag’s lining.

I remember feeling nervous but capable when my head teacher asked me to teach 90 minute classes alone to a group of ten students from each grade instead of assistant teaching in class with her like I’d been told I was going to. I thought of leading the girls’ nordic team on a warm up run of the course and going over technique tips and race strategy. I remember having the same feeling of purpose, of exhaustion but satisfaction in the classroom and on the trails. I remember thinking that no matter where they grow up and no matter what they’re doing middle school kids are essentially the same, all a little unsure of themselves and funnier than they realize.

I remember sitting on my bed in my house my senior year of college, spiraling into a panic while everyone I knew put on suits and went to career fairs and practiced case studies, feeling like I was suddenly being thrust into something I hadn’t prepared for and didn’t want. Why hadn’t I gotten internships during college summers? Why didn’t I own business heels? Was this all there was after graduation?

I remember sitting in an international phone booth in Chile interviewing for a job that did not require a suit or heels, calling effortlessly on my past experiences to answer questions and realizing that everything I had done in the past had counted, had led me to this exact spot, had in fact better prepared me for this job than any internship could have.

I remember standing outside in the driving rain at four in the morning at our snow camp with Colt and Jared, trying to fix our tent so it wouldn’t be claimed by the angry winds. I remember standing in my driveway as a light snow fell in December and feeling like I didn’t want to or know how to go inside. I remember yelling and crying as my parents and I tried to figure out how this whole living-at-home-after-college thing was going to work. I remember getting dropped off at a random street corner in ninety-degree Calama with Marielle after a creepy, sleepless overnight bus ride and having no idea where the bus terminal was. I remember spending four hours waiting in the cramped, noisy extranjería in Santiago waiting to pay a fine for my visa. I remember checking my email one day at school in Copiapó and discovering that my great aunt Angela had died and I hadn’t gotten a job I’d interviewed for in the same minute and a half. I remember having a panic my last week in Chile that I was making a huge mistake by leaving. I remember looking at my flight confirmation in the airport in Santiago as I was leaving and realizing that I’d missed my plane and would need to dig into all of my savings to get myself home. I remember feeling miserable, confused, frustrated, scared, disappointed, and lost. I remember feeling that maybe I had made a mistake in choosing this uncertain, nonlinear path, and wouldn’t it be easier if I were just living in an apartment with a full-time job somewhere.

I remember creeping out of my tent in the early morning clutching my sleeping bag to watch the sun rise over Lake Ohau with Justine and Colt and Babalu, I remember the overflowing pride as my middle school skiers crossed the finish line at their state meet, I remember feeling like I’d been punched in the gut when Marielle and I rounded a corner in Glacier National Park in Patagonia and were suddenly staring up at Monte Fitz Roy, I remember laughing until my jaw hurt playing the Chair Game with my students in class, I remember hiking to the top of one of the many mountains surrounding Copiapó with Natalie and Diego, gazing out over the sprawling Atacama desert. I remember feeling exhilarated, awestruck, joyful, accomplished, fulfilled, and lucky.  I remember feeling that I was in the right place, doing the right thing.

I remember while in Chile in 2011 reading a book called Even Silence Has An End, by kidnapped 1990s Colombian political candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Held captive in the Colombian jungle by guerilla forces for six years, she used her prior knowledge of needlepoint to keep from losing her grip on reality. She wrote, “Now I realized that life supplies us with everything we need for the journey. Everything I had acquired either actively or passively, everything I had learned either voluntarily or by osmosis, was coming back to me as the real riches of my life…”

I remember realizing that everything counts, that everything we do somehow contributes to who we are as people, to what we do and where we go and who we are next. That what we do inherently informs what we do next, that we cannot stop everything around us from shaping not only our present experience but also our future experiences. If we do things for the right reasons, for reasons that feel true and organic and necessary, those things will naturally lead us to the next right thing. Everything builds off everything else. Nothing we do mindfully is useless or pointless.

I remember sitting on the chair on the back patio of my house in Copiapó reading The Dharma Bums before the sandy mountains that looked blue in the morning light, and Ray saying “I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.” I remember smiling and knowing that it had been true all year and it was still true now, looking forward.

The Dream of a Common Language

When I was in elementary school in Needham, Massachusetts, each week we had a Spanish class with Señora Waters, a teacher who broadcasted to all of the classes in the school on a television screen and was assisted by a stuffed bear appropriately named Osito. We learned how to say different kinds of food and the colors and the days of the week. It was my first real exposure to Spanish, and I remember not really thinking much of it then, except that it was pretty cool that there was a teacher on a TV screen talking to us. I couldn’t sense then that the rhythmic, lyrical vocabulary that was being transmitted to my seven-year-old brain would eventually not just become a part of what I would later do, but who I would later become.

 

When we learn languages in school, they are broken down into their parts. We learn vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure. We learn pronunciation and spelling and usage. We learn the rules, and we learn the exceptions. And all of these things are part of language, of course, but they are not what language is. Language is so much more than a sum of its parts.

Thinking about the transformation of Spanish in my life from a list of vocabulary words on a piece of notebook paper to this living, breathing part of my personality is like watching a child grow. I remember running home after Spanish class in sixth grade and telling my Mom I’d learned how to say scooch in your chairs—“Escuchen!” I remember during an oral exam in high school realizing that I was just talking in Spanish without having to translate my thoughts from English in my head. I remember in Chile when I was sixteen and I realized I was counting something in my head in Spanish. I remember sitting around the table with my first Chilean host family seven years after I lived with them and realizing that I understood 100% of what was being said. I remember the first time I got mistaken for Chilean. Spanish had morphed from a subject in school to an undeniable force in my life, something that was real and alive and important.

Spanish isn’t the subjunctive or the tú form or the car-gar-zar verbs or the accent marks or the rolled R’s. Spanish isn’t textbooks or quizzes or oral presentations.

Spanish is my second host mother Gladys thanking God for her entire family during her vow renewal and saying thank you for me, her “hija adoptive.” Spanish is driving around with my host brother Cristian blasting reggaeton and using choice Chilean curse words to describe our hangovers while we chug Gatorades. Spanish is talking to my eighth grade girls during recess about their love lives. Spanish is chatting with José, the bartender at the restaurant I worked at in Evanston when business was slow. Spanish is watching my first host mom Cecelia start to cry when she read the card I made her for mother’s day. Spanish is gossiping about telenovela characters with my host aunt Liza. Spanish is talking about nature and environmentalism and great music and How I Met Your Mother with my friend Diego. Spanish is about helping Jennifer, an Ecuadorian student, adjust to life at Yarmouth High School. Spanish is discussing dreams and poetry and translation with other teachers. Spanish is Cristian putting me in a headlock and telling all his friends that I’m his real sister, and that I’m more Chilean than American. Spanish is getting asked about and telling my life story to cab drivers. Spanish is being thousands of miles away from home and still feeling like I’m surrounded by family.

This weekend as I drove down from the Andes into Santiago after a full day of powder skiing in July, feeling that warm, tired feeling you get after a day of being outside in the snow and laughing and goofing around in Spanish with two of our new Chilean friends, I felt a sense of belonging and connectedness to this country so full and overwhelming I thought I might burst. And though I hadn’t realized it at the time, that is what all of my years of work in the classroom were leading up to, were allowing to come into being. That was the largeness a language could grow to occupy in your life. As vast and sprawling and stunning as the mountains we were driving through.

When I am in class with my middle schoolers, I am teaching them vocabulary and grammar and pronunciation and spelling. I am teaching them all the building blocks of language, all the concrete, cut and dry aspects that say nothing for what a language can do, what a language can be. I am teaching them how to say the names of the different foods, of the days of the week, how to tell time and talk about future plans. I am teaching these things and these are the same things that I first learned, all those years ago in the second grade with Señora Waters. Because as small as they are, as small as they seem, they are the way in which you are able to arrive at a later point in your life when you are on a bus in the middle of Chile and you realize that the language you were taught and the language you are teaching now are so important not because of what they contain but because of where they allow you to go.

Watching my students running around the room laughing and yelling English vocabulary as we play games on our last day of class, I feel a warm contentment when I realize I am enjoying myself as much as they are. I look at all of their little faces, eyes shining, cheeks pink and smiles broad.

Language isn’t about words. It’s about people.

The Unbearable Lightness of Teaching

The school I work at in Copiapó is called Vicente Sepúlveda Rojo, or just “Escuela 18,” as we tell the colectivo driver in the mornings when my history teacher host mom and I make our way the six blocks straight up into the hills, hanging heavy with morning fog. It is a public K-8 school in a peach colored building in a bad neighborhood far away from everything, where all kids who are kicked out of other schools in the city get sent.

The kids live in a different reality here,” my head teacher said when I first started, telling me stories of kids with alcoholic and drug addicted and incarcerated parents, kids who had been abused by family members, kids who were using drugs themselves, kids who had severe learning disabilities, kids who were being bullied regularly by their peers, kids who in class when we learned how to talk about family could not write down the names of their fathers and mothers because they didn’t know what they were. I looked around at the ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen year olds who came into her class every day and wanted to hug every one of them, even the ones who sat in the back and ignored everything or bothered the other kids or swore or fought. How could I expect a kid to care about learning another language when most of them were barely making it through the school day?

There is an extremely pervasive Chilean slang word used to describe people who are being a pain that comes from the word that means “heavy”—“pesado.” I’ve heard the kids use it to describe teachers they don’t like, and even more I’ve heard teachers use it during lunch hour to describe kids who don’t behave in their classes. How can they not be pesados with all the heaviness around them all the time, all of the things that they are far too young to have to be dealing with, but that they are dealing with anyway? The level of English in all the grades is extremely low, and I knew that coming in I wasn’t going to produce a single fluent English speaker in the four months I had to teach, but I wanted to at the very least bring some lightness into their worlds, which themselves were so unbelievably pesados.

Teaching is not like a desk job. It is not static, it is not steady, it is not reliable, it is not something that allows you to let down your guard. You have to be “on” at all times, as my mom has always told me from her many years of teaching, and I didn’t realize how true it was until I was suddenly up in front of a room of students for 90 minutes at a time by myself, having never taught before. It is thoroughly dynamic—the energy you bring into the room is contagious, one way or another. And just as your energy is felt by the others in the room, you are distinctly able to feel the energy they bring as well. The highs and lows are pronounced—you can go from experiencing the ballooning pride when you’ve actually gotten through to a kid one second to the desperate helplessness when they simply refuse to cooperate the next.

Ana* is a girl in my eighth grade class with a punk-rock haircut, multiple piercings and a practiced apathy, a girl who practically begs people to give up on her so she can then resent them for it. She and her friends come into my classroom every day during recess to hang out and chat, where she throws in English words she knows and then when she comes into class sulks with her headphones in and refuses to do the work. My head teacher has told me that Ana’s mother abandoned her at a young age and she now lives with her grandmother, who started treating her like a disgrace to the family when Ana cut her hair and came out as a lesbian. Her first class with me, Ana participated with enthusiasm and was in the class by far the student who knew the most English. But the next week, she crossed her arms when I passed out a written activity and walked out of the class shortly after when I wouldn’t translate swear words for her. I talked to her later that day, telling her things I figured she probably didn’t too often like how I thought she was smart and could do really well in my class, but that she had to come in and do the work if she wanted to stay, and I thought in the naïve and overly optimistic way of someone who has seen Stand and Deliver more times than they’ve taught an actual class that maybe that little self-esteem boost would be enough to offset a lifetime of rejection, and left the conversation thinking that next class she would return transformed and ready to learn. The next week, when she handed in her quiz empty without even attempting to answer a single question, I felt the heaviness hit deep.

There are those days, the ones where you feel like you have an opportunity to save someone and you are completely botching it, and then you realize that just like you can’t make a twelve year old speak fluent English in four months of once-a-week class, you can’t save someone from a lifetime of disadvantages either. But you can maybe, just maybe, bring a little lightness. Because after the moments where the Anas hand in empty quizzes and pull their hoods over their heads, there are the moments that make you remember why you wanted to do this in the first place. The ones where one of the most hyper, impossible-to-control boys in your sixth grade class starts jumping around the room, dancing cumbia and chanting “HALF PAST ELEVEN, HALF PAST ELEVEN” when you are teaching them to tell time, making you laugh until your jaw hurts. The ones where you overhear a kid telling your head teacher that “aprendimos HARTO con la Miss Carolyn” (we learned SO MUCH with Miss Carolyn”) and you feel a little like you might burst. The ones where a kid who you’ve been told is getting terrible grades in all of his classes gets a near perfect score on his English quiz. The ones where kids make you little drawings on the graph paper from their notebooks and yell in protest when you tell them you’ll only be teaching them until winter break.

In one of my fifth grades classes there is a boy named Maximiliano* who is widely considered by the teachers to be a complete and utter menace—and not necessarily for bad reason. I have seen him at recess fighting with other kids, causing trouble with teachers, and generally behaving inappropriately. In my class, there have been days where he whines that he doesn’t understand English, that he doesn’t want to work, that he can’t do it. And then other days where he runs around like a maniac bothering other kids and making it nearly impossible for me to address the class. On the day we learned about the members of the family, he refused to participate, saying bluntly that he didn’t have a family, only a dad.

But today when I handed him a short written activity to do, he sat down quietly and he filled it out, asking me clarifying questions and finishing it without trouble or complaint. In that moment I was glad that I wasn’t having to reprimand or cajole him, and that he wasn’t bothering his classmates to the point of them not being able to work.

After the written activity we moved on to a game involving the new vocabulary they had just learned. While Maximiliano was usually the kid sitting with his arms crossed and only reluctantly if at all participating in games, today he jumped up to take his turns and got at least a couple of the answers right. In one moment I caught a glimpse of him smiling involuntarily and saw that his entire face had changed. The game was swirling on around him and he was wholly focused on it, grinning and engaged despite the fact that he was supposed to be an atrociously behaved, unintelligent terror of a student. It didn’t matter that he was cooperating so I didn’t have to discipline him, it didn’t even matter that he had gotten the definitions of a few vocabulary words correct, it mattered that even for a few fleeting seconds, he had lost himself in the world of the game, and smiled from a place that was real and genuine.

When students enter and leave the classroom, they say hello and goodbye to me with an “Hola, Miss,” or “Chao, Miss,” and the traditional Chilean greeting of a kiss on the cheek. Most of the girls do this, and some of the better-behaved boys, but Maximiliano was always the first one to sprint out the door without a word—I was lucky if he even waited for the bell to ring to do so. Today he was the last one out of the room, packing up his things and putting his desk back in its rightful spot after it had been displaced during the game. On his way out, with no one left in the room to witness him but me, he turned back and waved. “Chao, Miss.”

I felt that one, too. I felt the absolute, soaring lightness.