28 January, 2015

The Bridge That Inspired a Thousand Personal Statements

Continued from yesterday's post...

The waterfall
that I tried to climb
The second day of hiking was possibly one of the worst days of my life. For some reason, I thought being a healthy, energetic 19-year-old who skied, ran on an elliptical and played an embarrassing game of racquetball once in awhile counted as sufficient training for hiking 12-15 miles a day. Oops. Wrong. I was wearing brand-new, unbroken-in boots too, Cheryl Strayed-style. I actually cried for the better part of four hours that day, which thankfully no one noticed because my tears blended seamlessly with the torrential rain.

(It was neither the first nor the last time that I thought, Well, should have seen this coming, and, Is it a good or a bad thing that I keep convincing myself character-building experiences are going to be really fun?)

On the third or fourth, or maybe fifth day, we came to a bridge. You could call it the Bridge of Life and Death, or maybe the Bridge of Really Momentous Choices. Or the Bridge That Inspired a Thousand Personal Statements.

Or the Bridge Whose Symbolism Devoured Reality.

That first one has some validity. In my memory, the bridge is made of wooden planks, little more than a foot wide, hammered end to end and slick with rain. The sides are rope. Fifty or a hundred feet down is a roaring river, swollen from the constant downpour (it's not called rainy season for nothing). I don't remember the bridge swaying, so it must not have been windy - and I consider my memory of what wasn't terrifying about this bridge fairly reliable. There must have been some veracity to my perception of danger, because our guide opted to carry each of our backpacks across for us, making several round trips, so that we would only have to contend with only our own body weight. The guides also warned us that there would be no way to rescue us if we fell. They really knew how to inspire confidence.

Oddly enough it was retrospectively worse when we heard they planned to use an alternative route on future trips. Huh - so it probably really wasn't as safe as it should have been.
Goats, in the woods

Spoiler: We all survived. I haven't quite figured out that trick of building suspense when readers already know how it ends.

I remember looking behind us, my eyes tracing the muddy slope we had just stumbled down, unable to see any evidence of a trail existing there (we often weren't on trails, at least not well-maintained ones, and used machetes to hack through the brush). It was as clear to me then as it ever has been that there was no going back; the only way forward was, well, forward. 

See the symbolism? It was just like life!

(So, also like life, I milked it for all it was worth: at least a dozen personal statements.)

I'm not afraid of heights - or maybe it's more accurate to say that I usually enjoy the kind of fear that comes from heights - but I do remember being a little bit scared, in that moment, and thinking, "Okay, this would be a really stupid way to die. In the scheme of things. Don't get shaky and fuck it up." And then I walked across it. And kept on walking, another 60 or so miles, stopping along the way to kill a chicken and swim in a stunningly clear brook and learn to surf without knocking myself out with my surfboard.

I flew home without underwear or socks, because everything except the jeans and shirt I'd arrived in was still damp, and I ended up tossing them or leaving them for the next group of hikers to straggle into San José. (The boots survived another few years until, after a particularly muddy day rowing on the Isis, I tried to put them through the washing machine in Oxford.) The red wine on the plane to Miami tasted ridiculously good and I practically kissed the ground when we landed - I was, admittedly, pretty glad to still be alive.

Back in Virginia, my friend picked me up and took me to IHOP - it wouldn't be my first, or fifteenth, choice now, but I was reveling in the overdeveloped Americanness of everything. I was even peculiarly delighted to the see the Mixing Bowl. For the next few days - this is another strange twist in this story - I hung out at the house of his Mandarin-speaking parents, who were kind and welcoming and clearly worried their son might have brought home a white girlfriend. I watched American cartoons with his three-year-old sister. She taught me to use chopsticks. His mom taught me to always steam (or grill, but never boil!) corn on the cob. Life lessons are everywhere.

Then I drove my car - another much-loved Mustang, still playing that same CD - to Virginia Beach to spend the summer with my grandmother. About a month later, I had another "formative moment" - this time in the form of a bot fly larva in my calf. If you're squeamish, stop here. That's all you need to know, trust me.

I heard about these while I was hiking. In fact, I hiked with long pants for the first couple days, because I was so determined to avoid anything this tragically disgusting happening to me. Eventually, in the battle of Tropical Rainy Season vs. Amy's Fear of Bugs, the rain won, and I switched to shorts. And somewhere along the way, I picked up one of these mostly harmless but really, really icky little creatures. I had several mosquito bites when I got back to the States...one didn't go away. It got bigger and seemed to open (I'll let you Google the bot fly life cycle if you really want the goriest details), oozing bloody liquid. I pretended I thought it was an allergic reaction that got infected from scratching, and I coated it with a thick layer of Neosporin and a heavy bandage. (You can be the judge of whether this was subconscious or not - but I had been taught to remove the larvae using Vaseline and duct tape to cut off oxygen. At the time, I swore I was just treating an infected bite.)

Several hours and a trip to the Bar of Norfolk (where, at the time, dancing on the bar got customers free drinks) later, I noticed my leg was itching even more than it had been. In the bathroom, I peeked under the Band-Aid and...you can use your imagination. The worst part was that when I opened the area to the air, it tried to crawl back in. Okay, I know it wasn't a life-or-death infection, but it felt like it, at the time. Survival instinct, fueled by adrenaline, kicked in, and I yanked it out and dropped it on the rug. Then I disinfected my wound and went to wake up my boyfriend before my adrenaline levels crashed and sheer panic/horror/revulsion set it. We examined it, flushed it down the toilet and then put Google to work telling us whether there might be anymore and whether it required medical treatment (no and no). We were both premed by then - asking Dr. Google was a completely normal and expected reaction to a subcutaneous parasite acquired in a tropical country.


It's the funny thing about writing this blog: I keep learning new things about my father. Writing this, I thought, is it possible I haven't written about that damn bridge already? So I searched for "bridge" and found instead a post about our trip to Russia in 2003another about the swing set my father built for us, and this one, where I discovered he had wanted to put a labyrinth in our backyard.

I like that idea. Maybe this summer.

(Then we can obsess over how labyrinths symbolize life too!)

Clouds before sunset

27 January, 2015

{this memory} 124

This is the story behind last Monday's {this moment}.

The caption on this could be, "I'm a vegetarian, but every couple of months, I chop a chicken's head off with a machete."

I am not a vegetarian and not the girl crying as she holds the chicken's detached neck or the two with their hands clapped over their mouths. I'm the one in the horrible blue Hawaiian shorts, standing nonchalantly off to the side, perhaps waiting for my turn with a machete? Actually, I'm pretty sure my only thought at that point was, "When can we cook it?"

After more than a week hiking through the dense Costa Rican cloud forest, and mostly living off fruit, bread and rice (since I've never liked beans or plain avocado slices - why is that different from guacamole? it just is), I was pretty ecstatic to be eating meat. I probably wouldn't have balked at killing the cow too, except when you are carrying everything you need in a backpack for three-plus weeks, you can't really spare an extra set for soaking in blood. (Apologies to the squeamish. I'm a hematologist...blood is kind of my thing.)

This might not seem like a profound moment, but it was the first step of the transition from teenager-who-can't-boil-water (and definitely wouldn't touch raw meat) to Michael Pollan-obsessed grown-up who would really like to learn to hunt her own food. (This episode happened shortly after the trip to Costa Rica.)

My fellow hikers and I are at the home of a host family, the older brother of our guide, his wife and their five young children, somewhere on the western slope of the Sierra de la Muerte in Costa Rica, in May of 2001. Within an hour's hike of their home was the home of our guide's parents, where he and his brother were raised with their 16 siblings. There was a very, very small village closer to their home, and a newly constructed school with an American volunteer serving as schoolteacher. We could barely walk down the rain-drenched hillside before we were caked in mud (and by this point, my hair hadn't been completely dry in several days), so I was astonished to see the children dash back from school in perfectly clean, crisp white uniforms.

The house had running water, with pipes and pumps constructed by the family, and an iron stove carried by two men from the nearest town with a road, many miles away. Because there were no villages above it to contaminate the water source with waste, we drank the water without purifying it. (And it was delicious.) We also picked manzanas de agua (water apples) and cashew fruit off the trees and ate them sitting on the deck, where we slept at night gazing at stars in the darkest sky I'd ever seen (malaria = not a problem). A hotel chain was exploring building an eco-tourism resort there, but the family was unanimously opposed to it, because of the potential for contaminating their water supply and damaging the delicate ecosystem. Though the resort would bring roads and easier access to towns, cities, secondary schools and hospitals, they preferred the quality of life provided by an undamaged environment - a trade-off that often seems neglected in discussions of development.

This trip encapsulated more than one of the most formative moments in my life. As I mentioned in this post, I was absolutely terrified to go on it, although I'd been dreaming of "seeing the rainforest" since I watched Medicine Man when I was ten (not such a great movie, great score). Recently, I discovered I still have a CD labeled "Conducir a Costa Rica" ("Driving to Costa Rica") that I burned for the 4 AM drive from Charlottesville to Dulles airport for my flight.

To be continued...hasta mañana!

26 January, 2015

{this moment} 124

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.


24 January, 2015

The size of the world, the shape of a life

As some regular readers may notice, I think about place a lot. Places I've lived or visited, and those I miss, would like to go back or would love to visit someday...my place in the world, physically, spiritually, emotionally... So lately, I've been thinking about the size of the world.

First flight, March 2012
Or rather, I've been thinking about the size of my son's world, and how it expands and contracts and expands again, in the way that traveling makes the world - a world, our world - both bigger and smaller.

I was an infant the first time I flew on plane, but six or seven before I'd ever left the States. Finn was five weeks old during his first flight and seven months old when I took him to London for a conference and back to Oxford (where I used to live). Later, I took him with him to New Orleans and San Francisco, Guatemala City and Hong Kong, among others.

When I was little, I used to keep careful tallies: number of times on plane, number of cities and states and countries visited. Later, I switched to counting places "lived", if lived is roughly defined by working or going to school (i.e. not being on vacation), forwarding my mail, and having to prepare my own meals. I stopped counting flights around 100 but I never really lost my love of flying. Sure, there was a stretch in the spring of 2013 where I was on a plane - with my exhausted one-year-old - every two weeks for at least two months, and when it was done and I knew I would be flying again for a few months, I was tremendously relieved. 
Supervising tortilla making
Antigua, Guatemala, April 2013

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I walked to the restaurant district near my office to pick up lunch. It was unusually quiet because the neighboring university was still on winter break. When I was growing up, I would have been able to have free tuition at that university, through my parents, who taught at an affiliated school about an hour away, and so I thought briefly about what that would have been like.

And how, I never, not for one single moment of my childhood considered it. 

Which led to this question: What makes a child, at seven years old, know with absolute certainty that some day she will move far away from the world as she knows it?

There are some obvious possibilities but it's not straightforward. I didn't grow up in an itinerant family. I went to the same school system until I left for college, and lived in the same house, the same house I moved back to this summer. My mother and grandmother were both born in the city nearest our town. Few or none of my cousins left home. Much later, my sister left for two years for graduate school and then moved quickly back, which was always her plan.

Of course, my parents must have always been receptive to the idea. When I tried to apply to boarding school, they put their feet down immediately, but no one ever told me I couldn't go anywhere in the world for college. (The expectation of going to college was a non-discussion. It was always there, as it probably is for most children of academic parents, for whom speculating about your intended major in second grade is just good dinner table conversation.) My dad was my role model; I was used to being told that I was my father's daughter. He grew up in Virginia but finished his Ph.D. in Maine before settling in New York. And I can always remember wanting, in a small, quiet way, to go to the University of Virginia, like he did.

The doors to the world were always wide open to me. All I had to do was walk through them.

The road through the cloud forest, literally
(somewhere in the) Sierra de la Muerte,
Costa Rica, May 2001
The first time I traveled abroad by myself, I was 19 and going to hike across Costa Rica. The second time I was 21 and moving to Copenhagen for a post-college gap year. Both times, I was terrified, utterly and completed, and yet there was no part of me that seriously entertained not booking those trips, not getting on the plane - once the idea of each trip crystallized into a coherent thought, I was as good as committed to it. At that age and in that time period, I knew both people who had never flown and rarely traveled outside their home states, and people who had backpacked around the world solo. I've met people since who have traveled widely, despite growing up surrounded only by walls and having to kick open literal and figurative doors.

But I've also met people who seem never to dream of doing so, though I have no way of knowing their deepest desires, and it is very hard, maybe impossible, for me to imagine what the world looks like when it's reversed: when your world is very small, does everything in it seem very big? I've never had a chance to ask and it's a hard to know what to do with questions where getting perspective may cost you the answer. 

I can't imagine loving life within bounds, though maybe that is its own kind of limitation.

Which leads me back to my son and wondering what the world will look like to him. I hope it always seems both vast and awe-inspiring and inconceivable, and tiny and magical and completely within reach. When I was little, it wasn't easy to find a McDonald's in Italy and even when I was a teenager, Paris had no Starbucks. A few years ago, I ordered a vanilla latte in Chiang Mai. (Excuses, excuses: I drank salted lime juice and ate street food for breakfast almost every other day; there were no good espresso bars in sight; and I was furious for caffeine after breaking some ribs mountain biking.) So I ardently hope that there are things that globalization can't touch, so that my son still finds the world worth exploring and full of profound mystery.

People used to ask me why I always took him with me when I traveled, to conferences or for research. (I'll write another post on why this really wasn't such a big deal and how incredibly kind to us most people were.) Simple... I wanted to have a child so I could share the world with him, in all its puzzles and paradoxes. And seeing the world through his eyes is a near-magical gift. In changing how I see the world, it really did change my world.

Stopping to really listen to street music in Antigua, with Finn

This year, I'm planning to take him to Mont Tremblant in Quebec, and to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Next year - maybe Argentina or Bratislava, in the spring or summer, and hopefully Oxford and Skye, my old favorites, for New Year's Eve 2016. (God willing, adds my grandmother.)

21 January, 2015

On photography

After my last post, Marie of Rock the Kasbah commented that she was reconsidering whether professional photos were worth it! Which made me start thinking about the subject...

(Quick note: all these photos are just me or me and Finn because some of the other subjects don't want their pictures posted. And because I'm really self-absorbed.)

As previously mentioned, I hate having my picture taken. Like, really, really hate it. For the most part, I like the way I look - yes, I have features I hate and ones I love (and ones I've tamed into submission) - but I have rarely seen a picture that really looked like me, the way I imagine myself.

I used to think that said something about how we see ourselves, and whether I was actually overconfident about my beauty, especially since people often shrugged and said they thought certain pictures were actually quite nice. More recently though, I've been given face sheets for classes I'm teaching, and I've realized that it's not uncommon for a single photo to bear little or no resemblance to the person in real life (and for either the photo or the real person to be much more attractive than its counterpart). So either I have some weird variant of prosopagnosia (face blindness - and I'm not ruling this out) or it is simply true that some people are not photogenic - the way shadows reshape the planes of the face, or the way tiny imperfections stand out in pale skin after the flash. Or maybe some people, more than others, have a vital spark that photographs just can't capture.

So back to the subject of hating photographs: I do. I really do. I hate snapshots - film, digital, Polaroid, whatever. I hate video. I tolerate Skype and FaceTime. I really, really hate posed portraits and can't wait to replace the 8x10 of my high school senior portrait that is still hiding in our study. For years, the only profile picture I would use on social media was a black and white (for some reason, I had black and white film in my camera) headshot taken by one of my roommates before a charity ball in my fourth year of college. I had on full makeup (we'll get back to this) and had my hair up in a French twist but wasn't dressed yet, so I'm just wearing a white t-shirt. By the time my roommate laced up the back of a sparkling red strapless gown and we gathered with my friends and our dates, whatever spark that first picture captured was gone.

By 2010, I was starting to feel a little ridiculous about how few photos even existed of me as an adult. I tried to make a scrapbook for a friend's new baby and could only come up with two or three photos in 12 years of us together, including that one from the ball. Finally, my then-boyfriend's mother wanted to get professional pics of his daughter and I started Googling. I found Jennifer Harr, who described herself as "natural light photographer" (she no longer does this but still sells her art photography, so you should check out her site). I had always wanted to do playground photos (in college, I tried taking photos of my sister's best friend wearing my prom dress and going down slides at our elementary school), so I liked the idea of having someone just follow us around while we...played, basically. So that's what we did and this was the result:

I was kind of delighted. Unfortunately - c'est la vie -  most of my favorite shots of me also contain the ex-boyfriend, but they were fascinating from a social psych perspective. I'm sure you could look at them now and predict the relationship's demise - as I recall, in one, where he was kissing, or maybe sniffing, my hair, I was staring indifferently at some trees, and in the one where I was gazing adoringly (or so it seemed) up at him, he was looking blankly at the ground.

But a couple years later, when I wanted good photos of me and my son, I went looking for a talented photographer who was up for something unconventional and dramatic and definitely not in a studio.

So the arguments for hiring a pro:

1. The clothing/makeup investment: Once you've tracked down and booked a professional photographer, and decided to shell out money for the session and for nicely printed photos (perhaps a metal print or two), you can justify spending more time and money on makeup and clothes. I didn't end up buying new clothes for any of these, but I did spend a time thinking about what to wear and talking with the photographer about what would photograph well and how to coordinate amongst multiple family members without being all matchy-matchy. Some of my favorite outfits and dresses - like one I wore on Christmas Eve this year - definitely do not photograph well because of the patterns or silhouette. In the Red Rocks photos (baby, red dress), I had my makeup professionally done at Bare Escentuals and it was amazing and totally worth it. I don't wear makeup, and I don't necessarily think I look better with makeup most of the time, but I definitely realize that it photographs better. (In the others, I got lazy - I'm wearing powder-sunscreen-foundation, mascara and lip gloss, which is still a lot for me to apply myself.)

2. Lighting expertise: Even though we did all the photos outside, all the photographers had thoughts on best angles for light, best time of day, etc. They pointed out that brilliantly sunny days wouldn't necessarily result in the best photos of us, because of the shadow potential. I think I take good landscape photos and good close-ups of my son playing, but they really were experts.

3. Interesting/unique/artistic/creative angles, shots, poses, etc.: Like this one in front of graffiti at a park in Washington State...it would not have occurred to me that this would look so cool (even after cropping the guy out).

4. Not having to smile: I'm sure part of my lack of photogenicity (is that a word?) is that I cannot smile naturally on command. Period. And most people's friends and family, including mine, absolutely can't resist the urge to tell us to look at the camera and smile, and to wait...and wait and wait...until we do. A good professional photographer is ready - and more than willing - to capture the great photo that happens when two people are looking at each other or starting to laugh or sharing an intimate moment (or giving Eskimo kisses - see my last post), which I think is honestly so much better!

5. Selection and editing: So editing is probably just a given - most professionals are going to do some sort of editing. Some of the Washington pics (green sweater) have a distinct color filter on them, which looks awesome. But the part I like best is not having to flip through the really, really awful pictures. I have no idea whether they exist or ever existed. Maybe talented photographers don't even take the kinds of terrible pictures that I'm used to seeing when I've gotten caught in someone's snapshots. But I sort of suspect that they do and that they've already been eliminated by the time I get to see my portfolio - and I'm glad for it.

And last, thanks again to Jen, Katie and Ambi for lots of beautiful pictures!

20 January, 2015

Family pictures

The non-awkward, take-my-breath away kind! 

All the credit goes to Ambi Daniel, of Anivile Daniel Photography, for taking these...

...and to Finn, who was really cold but as patient as an almost 3-year-old could be.

I don't think I appreciated just how enormous that tree was until I saw these photos. Finn looks tiny next to it. It's not Tree, of course, but I think my dad would have loved it. Especially the way that one branch reaches out around us, protectively. 

Every time we took professional photos, I tried to pick locations that were distinctive and memorable...so that some day, we'd look back and say, yeah, those pictures were definitely from there. Finn's six-month pictures were taken at Red Rocks. He wore baby jeans and a white linen shirt and I wore a red Armani dress and riding boots! (I would love to take him to a concert there someday.) So I loved that - to me - these pictures, especially the middle one, very clearly say Utica. After spending the first half of my life in one small town, I lived in a lot of different places between the ages of 16 and 32. Almost without exception, every day I miss something about each one.

The way the ice perfectly coated the tree branches in Charlottesville in the winter, and the deep, dark, lush, lush green of trees in the Virginia summer, and cicadas singing and warm night breezes kissing bare skin, walking home from Jefferson Hall in a sundress in the spring... Licking salt off my lips and picking Pungo blueberries in Virginia Beach, which I would then freeze and eat in the middle of the night when the heat weighed us down and drove us mad... Wandering into one of the Smithsonians to look at a single painting for an hour in D.C. and lying on a bench near the mall, watching cherry blossoms wave against clear blue sky... The best carrot-zucchini muffins in the world - with insanely perfectly delicious crunchy tops - at the coffee shop near my apartment in Atlanta and the French balcony in that apartment, so I could open the doors and listen to the thunderstorms every afternoon... The precise shade of steel blue of the sky at dusk in Oxford and the sound of blades slipping into the water on the Isis at 5:30 in the morning, swans gliding by in silence, sparkler candles at birthday parties - happiness made into light - and, oh, citronnier, the citrus-glazed semolina muffin-cake-pastry-things that I bought once a week from the French bakery... Fresh ravioli and burrata from the Italian Market in Philadelphia, and sour cherry caipirinhas at Alma de Cuba, and long, cozy, witty dinners at a new BYO every week, and someone bringing me coffee with milk and a bowl of blackberries at 7 AM after a long night on-call... Making first tracks in untouched powder in Vail, and curling up with a good book and spicy chai in my favorite bookstore (Tattered Cover), and finally, finally being a regular somewhere, though not with a regular order since the menu changed every couple of months... And markets with pyramids of spices and towers of olives, b'stiya - only the best food ever - and people selling fresh squeezed juices or hot empanadas or every kind of curry, and calls to prayer, and marimba street music and...I'll stop.

I have a playlist for each of these places, by the way.

So it means something to be able to look a picture of Finn or me or my family and see, mostly, us, yet there, lingering in the background, is that awesome sense of time and place.

For any readers in Denver who might be looking, here's a link to my favorite photographer there: Katie Bradford Osborne at The Roaring Artist.

15 January, 2015

{this memory} 123

This is the story behind last Monday's {this moment}.

My parents' house in upstate New York, New Year's Eve, 2013...

We've gotten impatient waiting for guests to arrive and are already into the appetizers and sparkling rosé. My son, who is a very adventurous eater, is trying to force a piece of cheese on his pickier aunt.

12 January, 2015

{this moment} 123

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.


10 January, 2015

A tree grows near Chiang Mai

I can't replace Saturdays with the Tree, but being pretty fond of trees in general, I have more than a few favorite photographs of them. I took this while mountain biking in Thailand, just after leaving a coffee plantation and before breaking some non-essential ribs.

Near Ban Kun Chang Kian coffee plantation, Chiang Mai, Thailand
June 2010

09 January, 2015

Light For The Navigator, XI

Cape Hattaras Lighthouse (prior to move)
Current Tower First Lighted in 1870
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Hattaras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina

Originally posted three years ago, my father planned to revisit this series of lighthouses this year. Although he never did, I have chosen to repost these monthly on the day of his passing, in his memory and in celebration of his love for lighthouses.

See: Birth of Salvation
Digital scan of a 35mm color slide
Copyright © 2011 Thomas G. Brown

06 January, 2015

Blog on the rocks!

I learned to climb in a high school environmental science course (of all places! I think the only exam I failed in my very, very long academic career was a test in this same course that required memorizing 250 bird calls). I picked it up again in college, climbing in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and New River Gorge, as well as Seneca Rocks. In med school, I occasionally went to one of two rock gyms, but then as an intern, I finally discovered a gym that made climbing indoors worth it - Go Vertical in Philadelphia.
An easy climb on Skye
July 2005

Climbing outside is a spiritual experience. It's about trusting your body and trusting the earth, and seeing how they fit together. Climbing indoors is possibly the most intellectual of physical experiences. It's like solving a puzzle, like playing chess against yourself. Sometimes it feels not that dissimilar to playing the piano. I can think of dozens of metaphors - pick something that you have to first reason through, but then just do, without thinking about too deeply. That's how I'd describe indoor climbing.

The Philly gym was perfect - high walls, because getting to the top quickly is not satisfying at all, and lovingly designed routes (by their really generous, friendly staff), with reasonably consistent difficulty ratings. It's not the numbers that matter so much - unless you're out through climbing 5.14s on-sight - but it helped to track our progress and decide which problems would worth our time. I remember one particularly difficult route perfectly. I can picture the green, fat, oval "moment of truth" hold in that route perfectly, and I can remember exactly how it felt to finally get my foot on top of the damn thing, too.

Interesting and random side note(!): I've had hypnagogic and hypnapompic hallucinations since sometime in college. (I also have lucid dreams.) These are hallucinations that happen during the transition to wake to sleep or vice versa. Mine started as mainly trees and insects crawling on my pillows (absolutely no idea why, I am not particularly phobic) but now I mainly have the Tetris effect, though I didn't know it had a name until I looked it up on Wikipedia for this post.

I've experienced most of the examples they give (including chess and manipulating organic chemistry molecules when I was in college) but they now mostly involve rowing, rock climbing and playing the piano or flute. Mine are multi-sensory: I don't just feel the rocks, I see them shifting as if I'm moving them around. It's a strange but not frightening sensation.

After Philadelphia, I moved to an outdoor climbing mecca. I loved Garden of the Gods, Eldorado Canyon, and the Flatirons, but only in the earliest hours of the morning. By midday, in the Colorado sun, I couldn't think of anything except, My skin is roasting, charring and falling off my bones. So eventually, I found myself back in the gym a lot. One gym had a good website for hooking up with climbing partners and I clicked with a few people and starting going a couple times a week.

Then I found out I was pregnant. At the time, I knew hardly any women who climbed seriously and no one who had even contemplated climbing during their pregnancies. So I wore my harness under loose sweaters for as long as it was comfortable and told no one except one climbing partner. Finally, around five months, I stopped.

And then yesterday I found Beth Rodden's awesome blog about climbing while pregnant!

Seriously, where was this three years ago?!! There is even a pregnancy harness, called Mountain Mama. This makes me want to move deep into the mountains, like, yesterday. Or at least resolve to the climbing gym more often until the long dark of winter is over. 

04 January, 2015

{bad poetry} 2

I kept thinking this should become a poem, but it never quite materialized that way.

Sometimes I wish I had another talent, a gift for something other than words, for painting or writing music, because when it comes to self-portraits, words always fail me.

But this is how I see myself now, with a black hole in the middle of my heart.

If I could paint, I'd draw circles around that hole, my favorite colors, blue, green and violet. Some of them would look like music. Some of them would taste like snow.

I get it now. We never stop growing. My life gets richer, yes. We build on top of foundations, even when the foundation is grief. But there is no way to color inside it, no one to fill in the void.

I hear my own words between the lines of the poem I've always loved, In Blackwater Woods. "To live in this world, you must be able to do three things," Mary Oliver says. "To love what is mortal. To hold it / Against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the times comes to let it go..."

To let it go.

New Year's Eve 2014

02 January, 2015


This is a repost of repost of a... You get the idea. One of my failed blogs was supposed to be devoted to creative writing and I planned to start by posting a few pieces of poetry from, well, let's call the unfulfilled promise of my youth.

Side note: I once started an essay dedicated to thanking the talented faculty of Utica College, where my dad taught, for all the things they taught me when I was a middle and high school student running around the campus. Dr. Nassar was somehow persuaded to offer me an independent study in poetry writing. I have a really hard time thinking of something I'd like to do less than read a 15-year-old girl's self-absorbed musings on a weekly basis, but he was an extremely patient and generous mentor.

Back to the point: This is actually not about my poetry at all. Instead of posting my own work on that defunct blog, I started with this piece, which is the only poem (to my knowledge) ever written about me.


She says she hates pictures
because she never seems to
look right in them. I think
she hates pictures because
they steal her.

For a moment,
she sits on my bed,
poised against the background
of my chaos.
She stares at the camera,
her lover.
She smiles a challenge.
I am beautiful.
Caught, enchanted, mesmerized
by her calm seduction,
the camera wants her. It opens
to capture her, but instead
the light, the world falls under her

This is her picture
and she is beautiful.

CB, April 2000

By the time I first reposted it, I had held on to it for almost ten years. It was a rare gift to see myself through someone else's eyes. This is, of course, a flattering portrayal, and it's probably true that we often don't appreciate the truth of our own beauty. On the other hand, it is also raises the question of how much what we see when we look at others is a reflection of ourselves. The interface of self/other is probably especially important when we write about people we know well, intimately even.

When I read this now, I read it as a classic story of confidence and insecurity, strength and vulnerability in (teenage) relationships. So many of my friends, like me, were so very, very good at not revealing our insecurities, even when their voices were never quiet in our heads... To each other, the person being observed looked stronger, more confident, and more gorgeous that the observer ever imagined herself to be. When I watched the White Winter Hymnal a cappella video that I posted a few weeks ago, I thought, Was I ever that pulled-together in college? The answer: No, but I probably looked like it most of the time, to outsiders. So who does this poem reveal more about? The author or the subject?