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 Brochure

It was yesterday, as I found myself running around Santiago alone, trying not to get simultaneously deported and kicked out of my English teaching program, that I was hit with a vivid image of my NOLS kayaking instructor Ben looking out at a swollen, terrifying sea and proclaiming in his booming voice “Now THIS is the brochure!” Due to his Australian roots, the word sounded like “BRO-shuh,” and due to his slightly untraditional vision of the NOLS brochure, what we were looking at appeared to be a completely impossible situation.

We had spent most of the kayaking section “lily-dipping” through flat water, letting the sun tan our forearms and experiencing little resistance whatsoever from the elements. Instead of feeling like we were unwelcome trespassers in Mother Nature’s backyard, as we would later, she seemed to us a genial, nurturing hostess cradling us in her aquamarine arms.  It seemed impossible that clear skies, calm water, and bright yellow boats couldn’t be considered prime Brochure conditions, but the nicer the weather got, the more Ben seemed to call out across the water to the fleet, “WHERE’S THE DAMN BRO-SHUH?!” It was merely funny at first, one of the many amusing Ben-isms, but it became clear later why it was that Ben was inciting Mother Nature to bring it on.

It was a few weeks into the course and we found ourselves hitting our first major weather system—the clouds had been growing throughout the morning and less than a kilometer away from our destination we came around a corner and were blasted with an intense current, swelling waves and cold rain. I watched from my kayak as Ben gave a “cut it” gesture to Sally, our other instructor, and we were immediately instructed to get off the water. We pulled the boats onto a small beach in the cove we were floating in and watched while Ben paddled out into the open ocean around the corner to test the waters. Though a fiercely powerful rower, Ben was still unable to gain any ground against the strength of the water, and returned to the beach after a few minutes of effort, shaking his head at Sally. We went in shifts to the top of the leafy ridge to check the ocean on the other side of the cove, watching the whitecaps roll into shore. Finally, after what seemed like a soggy, cold eternity, we saw that the water had calmed enough for us to make a break for it.  As fast as we could, we got the kayaks into the ready position, pushed them out into the water, and hopped in. What we would face around the corner of the cove would be like nothing we’d seen thus far, nothing like what we felt prepared for.

The second we turned the corner, we ducked our heads down against the driving rain, trying to maintain our heading. Paddling became like pushing plastic through hardened concrete, and any attempt at communication between boats seemed to get lost in the wet, gray air. At some point I looked over to my left and saw Ben in his kayak, beaming at us and to himself. His Brochure had certainly arrived, though we hadn’t yet figured out why on earth that could be a good thing.

Nearly seven months after kayaking into the current in the Marlborough Sounds, I found myself speedwalking through throngs of Chilean businessmen on their way to work, starting to sweat a little and wondering if I was about to have to get on a plane back home. I’d spent the morning running in my business casual outfit first ten blocks in the wrong direction, then twenty blocks back to the Banco Estado where I had to pay my visa fine, and then to the extranjería where I would attempt to register the visa for the second time. Due to arriving in Chile over a month before my teaching assignment began and not being able to register my visa within the required thirty days, I was now experiencing the veritable roller coaster to hell that is bureaucracy. I’d spent four hours the previous Friday sitting in the extranjería waiting to file for my late-registry sanction, at which point I was told I’d have to pay a fine, but I had to do it at a particular bank, and I wouldn’t be able to do it until the next Monday because all the banks were already closed. I’d spent Monday morning trying to pay the visa fine before it got any higher and subsequently skipping the first several hours of my teaching orientation to do so. At the time, trying not to get deported seemed like a valid reason to miss a few introductions and housekeeping items. After walking 2 kilometers out of the way, then waiting twenty minutes for the bank to open, and then waiting another thirty in line, even at 9:30 the morning was off to a bit of a dismal start. As I was walking out the door to head to my orientation thirty minutes late, I read on the bank form that failure to register the visa within three days of paying the fine would result in more fines. Deciding to cut my losses with the orientation, I speed walked back to the extranjería to attempt to register for a second time. After two hours waiting in a cramped, poorly lit waiting room with Chilean daytime TV blasting at a jarring volume, I arrived at the counter to be told that I was missing important photocopies I hadn’t been told about and that they couldn’t do anything for me until I had them. Though up until that point I’d maintained a pretty positive attitude about everything that had been going on, feeling good about my ability to navigate the bank and the extranjería and a good deal of the Santiago streets in Spanish, this hit felt a lot like turning a corner and being blasted by a 3 knot current. Little did I know that the rain hadn’t even started yet—that in only a few more minutes I would arrive late to my teaching orientation and be told that failure to show up to any part of the mandatory training was grounds for dismissal from the program.

As I walked from the extranjería to the training center, I tried to practice deep breathing, tried to visualize that bright white light in, that black smoke out, and tried repeating over and over that I couldn’t control the raging storm going on around me, that I could only control my reaction to it. And that stressing and getting twisted up in knots would not change anything expect my experience of all of this, and that the decision to breathe deeply and think calmly was just as available to me. I was then reminded of another nugget of NOLS wisdom, one of the seven leadership principles that I had experienced many times on my semester in New Zealand and that I was unquestionably experiencing now. I could see the words written in the little yellow handbook we were all given on the first few days: Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity.

My first turn as Leader of the Day came near the end of our kayaking section—Ethan, my co-leader, and I had planned relay races, games and other fun activities for what we expected to be a relatively easy move on the water. Things had gone smoothly for the entire journey, until we pulled up at what was marked on our charts as a campsite. Justine and I hopped out of the boats to inspect the site, finding a place to store the boats and to set up tents and tarps. It became quickly clear that the spot was uncampable—overtaken by vegetation, hilly, and without a discernable fresh water source. We consulted the chart and found two other nearby camping options, so we rounded the boats back up and set out to try our luck at the next spot. Two more times we pulled up to a beach, hopped out of the boats, and determined that what was supposedly a previous campsite of another NOLS group was actually inhabitable. Ethan and I decided to take a beach break to figure out what the heck we were going to do, feeling the responsibility of the entire group on our shoulders. It didn’t help that it was overcast and cold, and that the morale and energy of the fleet was quickly waning.  I tried not to let the guilt and disappointment in myself that was starting to creep up on me take over as we poured over the chart, feeling as though I’d certainly failed the group as a leader. Ethan and I decided that our best option was to kayak three more nautical miles to what again was only possibly a campable spot.

When we finally arrived, everyone drained from the difficulty and the ups and downs of the day, we found ourselves engaging in what Ben referred to as “combat camping” – a fight against the encroaching tide to stay dry on the tiny sliver of beach. After setting up our tarps we all gathered in a circle to do the daily debrief, a discussion of what had gone well and what could be improved upon for the leadership of the day. I sat next to Ethan, prepared for us to get reamed out for leading the group astray not once, not twice, but three times, and waited for what our feedback would be. To my shock, the group and the instructors commended us for being able to roll with the punches, for being able to re-strategize when things didn’t go according to plan, and to deal with unexpected challenges in a calm and competent manner.

Remembering this phrase, Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity, as I walked home from orientation alone, having been pulled aside to be reprimanded for skipping and still not having sorted out the visa problems, I felt my heart rate slow, my breath even out. I imagined Ben looking at the situation I was in and saying, “Now THIS is the Bro-shuh!” I knew the reason that he’d wished to provoke the wrath of Mother Nature, the reason that a day that seemed like complete catastrophe had been reason for praise, was because the Brochure, the Uncertainty and Adversity, those are the places we grow. Those are the places where our abdominals strengthen from paddling against a forceful current, those are the places where our independence and competence soar, those are the places where we learn to keep breathing deeply as we walk even when things around us are spiraling into a tangled wreck. Navigating difficult seas, remaining calm and clear-headed in the face of uncertainty and adversity—the image of that, that is the Brochure. And though it may not look like the pretty picture we’d wanted, may we all be lucky enough to experience it, and to keep paddling right through it.

Traveling Light

Coming back to Chile for the third time was distinctly different than the second–less a breath-quickening miracle of a thing and more a warm, familiar loveliness. Spanish tasted like a favorite childhood food in my mouth, the air seemed to wrap its arms around me. Our first night in Santiago I felt the wild, sprawling love for this country that had been dulled my last departure by the state of my father`s health. I had missed Chile more than I’d been aware of, missed the quick, aspirated S`s, the steady reggaeton baseline pumping out of car stereos, the omnipresence of small, oblong avocados, the certain crisp flavor of the air.

Going back to Coquimbo to visit my host family seven years after living with them felt like a tug as natural as the gravity holding me to the stone patio overlooking the tiny bay. I sat at their kitchen table as I’d done dozens of times before, sipping black tea with sugar and talking about how things were going, and it felt like slipping into another version of myself, one that had been set aside somewhere, but that felt as right and as comfortable as a favorite old fleece jacket. It felt like this self, transmitted through the medium of the unique Chilean strain of the Spanish language, had just been waiting here for me to slide back into it. It felt as organic and as mine as any other part of me.

But it felt strange to line up all the other parts next to this one and create a cohesive, co-existing whole. The me sitting in Coquimbo chatting in Spanish to dozens of members of extended family felt worlds away from the me cross-country skiing through silent snow laden trees in Maine, to the me swaying to live music before the Chicago skyline. They all seemed strikingly disparate and yet equally valuable, equally authentic.  Would it ever be possible to unite them and the others in their company to create a complete self, or would some parts always be taking a backseat to others?

At the beginning of my NOLS semester in the fall, our kayaking instructor Sally told us that this was an opportunity to be our best selves–to come in fresh to this experience, leaving behind all the aspects of our personality we wished we didn’t have, and allow the most true and beautiful parts of our nature to take the lead. The air in the small room at base camp was  suddenly thick with the acceptance of the challenge. Everyone seemed to be mentally sifting through themselves, choosing what should stay and what should be left behind, just as we had when packing our 90 liter backpacks for the semester. The strategy was similar– take only what you need, only what will be the most beneficial and useful. We are often weighed down by the useless and the unnecessary. And so as we were instructed to lighten our gear loads, we were advised to lighten our identities as well.

As one of the oldest members of my NOLS group, I was approached for advice by one of my younger friends who was struggling with how to choose a college.  I told him what I firmly believed to be true– that in life wherever we go is bound to bring out different aspects of our personalities, and to choose somewhere you will be happy you must first decide what aspects you want to be brought out.

Sitting in my host family`s kitchen, I felt pulled in many directions, and was struck with the visceral and looming concern that many shades of myself would prove to be mutually exclusive– that I would be forced to choose. And it was one thing to unpack unnecessary or bulky items and leave them behind, and quite another to realize that you can either bring your socks or your hat or your gloves, but not all three.

It seemed to me as I switched between rattling off Chilean slang to my host sister and translating for Marielle in English, shifting rapidly between selves, that I either hadn’t come to terms with the reality of a difficult choice, or I hadn’t found the right backpack yet– one that would allow space to pack in all the best, necessary things. But luckily, our journey was young and so were we, and as you go you always find better ways to pack everything in.