Friday, December 13, 2019

Well it’s back to the battle today

“It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” —Dr. Maria Montessori
we try out some Montessori
I’ve been reading a lot about Dr. Maria Montessori (Italy, ca. 1900) and Montessori-based education. I’ve written about it here before. Although it can feel overwhelming, this sense that an entire child’s future rests on my ability to do parenting “right.” I read an article recently that questioned that thinking, that said that we should be thinking of educating children more as being a gardener, rather than being a carpenter. Basically: not worrying about it so much. Not thinking of parenting as a verb, as something that you do, but as a relationship. We shepherd our children, we cultivate the ground they grow in, but we’re not actually trying to shape them, as we would a board, into a specific design.

Yet: my struggle is that I feel like there are many things being done wrong by parents today. There’s this sense in the article that most parents do things more or less right, and that most children end up more or less okay. This assertion I question. I, myself, have struggled for a long time with something I hesitate to call mental illness, because it feels more common than that. It feels literally ubiquitous, in the sense that this cosmic unease—or angst, or a kind of low-level anxiety—is everywhere. Everyone has it. I’ve written about my struggles with depression, and I’ve written about my struggles with disordered eating.

It is, of course, that eternal question of nature versus nurture. When things go wrong with our children we want to blame nature, but when things go well, we think we’re doing a great job.

And I feel like many things are going wrong with children these days, and not just children, because children grow up to be adults, and adults and children together make society. There is much I see wrong with our society right now, much I believe needs to change. Maybe if we focused a little bit more on our children, on the ways in which their needs are and are not being met (or maybe I say so because I happen to have a preschooler) we might see some changes at a larger societal level.

I just hunted online for my possibly apocryphal article (which, I believe, really did make the case that the kids were going to turn out okay), and it turns out that the research is actually from a book by Alison Gopnik titled The Gardener and the Carpenter.  Maybe I heard about it on my new favorite (that’s a stretch—I have so many favorite podcasts right—but I wish to God they’d do an episode about Carl Jung) podcast, “Hidden Brain.”

It turns out that Alison Gopnik makes exactly the point I’m trying to make, much better than I could, about the problems with the carpentry method, and the gardening method that she supports is akin to Montessori.

Referring to the carpentry model, she says: “the main harm is that it makes the process -- the life of being a parent -- anxious and difficult and tense and unhappy in all sorts of ways that are unnecessary. And I think it makes it that way for parents, and it makes it that way for children… the carpentry story is one where you're so concerned that the child come out that you're not giving the child the freedom to take risks and explore and be autonomous.”

Even though children of carpenters can be considered more successful: “in some ways, they're doing much better. They're achieving more, they're less likely to take risks, they are less likely to get pregnant or to use drugs. But that goes with a kind of anxiety -- high levels of anxiety, high levels of fear …that is what you would predict from the carpentry story.”

So, Montessori. Although whenever I mention the word, especially to another mother, I find my listener’s eyes immediately shut down: already they’re hearing, “You’re doing it wrong. Do it this way instead.”

Which, in short, is what I am saying. But I’m not saying: worry more about how you’re parenting. I’m saying: trust your children to follow their own path. Prepare their environment, make it safe, and then get out of their way. Don’t worry about whether or not they’re doing the right thing, but trust that what they’re doing meets their current developmental need, whatever that is.

I find it so difficult to put this essential Montessori principle into words. It is, as Dr. Montessori wrote herself, the “secret of childhood,” but the more I learn about it the more I see these principles borne out by research again, again, and again, not just for children, and not in work that uses Montessori terminology. It seems to be not just the secret of childhood, but the secret to happiness, to contentment, to joy.


Take, for instance, the idea of focus. That particular intense concentration that children use in order to grow, to explore, to learn to do the things that they need to do in order to be complete human beings. The focus that a baby has when she is learning to crawl, or walk. It is one of the things that initially drew me to the practice, all the blogs with moms showing pictures of their children with what I now call Montessori face: a look of intense focus. Of inner drive and determination.

independent baking

"We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child’s spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.”  --Dr. Maria Montessori

I’ve begun to think of those moments when my daughter is in deep focus as sacred. To interrupt her, to ask her if she needs to drink some water, or to teach her how to construct a tower, or to say we’re leaving for the library— any of these things interrupt the neural pathways that she is building, the pathways that she will use for the rest of her life when she is deeply immersed in something invaluable to her.

In short, it is flow. I take for granted that you’ve read Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow? Or that, even if you haven’t, you know what I mean? Flow is that right-brained state an artist enters into when he is painting, or a writer when she is writing, or a violinist when he is practicing. Full immersion into a timeless eternal state, where one may as well not be in one’s body. Again and again, in study after study, in book after book, I read about flow as being the one essential element to happiness. People are happy in their jobs when they can find flow. In their lives, when they have a hobby that allows them to slip into that state. That old saw “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is about flow. I keep reading self-help books, and they constantly refer to the concept of flow, and how essential it is to recover true contentment. (Designing Your Life is the book I read most recently that mentioned the concept.)

We say what we most want for our children is happiness, but really we deprive our children of the concentration that brings it, every chance we get. When they’re born we immediately pack their playrooms with every possible brightly colored electronic gadget that sings and dances, with rotund jovial cartoon animals that never occur in life, with screens and noise and color and sensation—anything to distract them from the horror of life— that must be what we really believe, right?—and then we wonder why they’re unable to put their own toys away, why they can’t sleep, why they’re having tantrums, why they’re so upset. All they need is a calm, safe place to discover the world and all we offer them is distraction.


Take, for another, the Montessori idea of self-reliance.

Or self-trust, self-motivation, self-esteem — whatever you call it. The idea that I can know myself, deeply, intimately, and believe, at an intuitive level, that I know what is right for myself. I have come back to this self-reliance in my own life as I’ve begun intuitive eating, learning that my own body’s fullness and hunger signals can be trusted. Again, it is something that reoccurs in my reading so often, especially on the self-help websites I frequent: the number one predictor of happiness is intrinsic motivation.  (Like here!  Link: "Self-Reliance Is the Secret Sauce to Consistent Happiness")

Anyone can be shamed into doing anything. It’s a method of force, like physical pain. As soon as no one’s looking, though, we’re going to go back to the thing that we really wanted. When we become ashamed of ourselves, we lose our ability to trust our inner intuition. For a child, self-trust depends on learning that the way I want to play the blocks is a manifestation of my own imagination, and of no one else’s. It means teaching children that their desires can be trusted, and followed, and that they lead where they should go.

It’s one of the things I’ve read about early-childhood education that has the most data to back it up: this understanding that saying “good job” actually subverts children’s sense of self, because it takes away their ability to rely on their own intuition and motivation.  Link:  "How Not to Talk to Your Kids," by Po Bronson
"In short, 'good job!' doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure." --"Five Reasons To Stop Saying Good Job," by Alfie Kohn
"Excess praise can be damaging to our children's intrinsic motivation (working just for the pure pleasure of it -- not to please anyone else)." --"Break the Good Job Habit" by Aubrey Hargis
It’s so counter-intuitive, right? Because we’re saying that what the child is doing is good! We’re supporting him! We’re telling her she SHOULD trust herself! Aye, there’s the rub: US adults, from the outside, telling children what to do, what’s good, what’s bad, instead of allowing them to discover the world for themselves.

The reason we don’t say good job is not because we don’t think our children are doing a good job. It’s because we don’t want them to be reliant on other people to think that they’re doing a good job. We want that sense of satisfaction to come from inside, rather than from outside.
"Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely."  --Alfie Kohn
I continue to struggle with praise as an adult, as a writer. All I want as a writer is external validation. In the form of publication, or an agent or an editor telling me that my words are worthy of reproduction. In the form of money. In the form of an audience, of you, reading these words. It’s not enough for me simply to write them, to produce them for the joy they give me, the sense I have of order coalescing as I organize my sentences. I want you, reader, to tell me “good job.” Preferably in the comments.

So. Is it any surprise that I want something different for my daughter? Something different than what was given to us by our parents, and what I’ve consistently watched other people give their children: shame, and guilt, and constant reliance on external validation.

A brief story: we toured a Montessori school (Bridgeview Montessori) and the director said that she’d sent her daughter to Montessori preschool, but then to kindergarten at a traditional school. When she and her husband figured out that it wasn’t working for their daughter, they brought her back into Montessori school.  Even in that one brief year, she had unlearned this ability to trust her own intuition, her reliance on intrinsic motivation, her own inner sense of self. The girl would bring her drawings up to the teacher and say: isn’t this good? Is this what you wanted? Is this how it should be colored?

The Montessori-trained teacher would have to answer: what do YOU think? Is it good for you? Is that how you wanted your drawing to come out? Can you talk to me about it?

That’s after one year. Only one year of traditional school.
“'s particularly ironic because school was actually designed as part of trying to get people trained for an industrial world. In a sense, school was designed to make robots, in that it gave people skills that now robots are capable of doing. And in a post-industrial world, exactly the skills that we need -- innovation, creativity, risk-taking -- are exactly the ones that we're not encouraging.”  --Alison Gopnik
When I say I want this self-trust for myself, I mean that I’m thinking of starting remedial Montessori workshops for adults. Because I have 41 years of that kind of programming to counteract. It’s why yoga has been my heart-song for the last however many years. In yoga, the teacher says: allow your body to be what it is today. Listen to your body, the same way in Montessori we say: follow the child. In yoga, the lights are off and I’m on my mat myself, no one to impress, no teacher to show off for. Even though 99 percent of the time, I’m thinking: did that impress her? Or: oh no, I’m not doing it right.

The other crazy thing about Montessori is how it actually works. Every principle that I’ve taken seriously and implemented consistently has had unforeseen benefits and astonishing success. It works.

The irony is that articles about teenagers all essentially say the same things. Have good boundaries and agreed-upon limits with your children. (Montessori: freedom within limits.) Teach them how to do things themselves rather than doing them for them. Give them autonomy and responsibility rather than helicoptering all over the place. It seems like so much of what we’ve done with the millennial generation, all the evils that are blamed on them, is exactly the opposite: our fault. The boomers, the Karens. We’ve given them no freedom--not to go outdoors, or to get jobs, or to hang out with their friends--and instead have given them limitless addictive technology that may literally be killing their brains.  ("God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” says Sean Parker, Facebook's first president.)
"...that parent can take on the most important role of parenting, that of teaching the child to take care of himself by demonstrating how it is done."  --"When It's Time for Them To Get a Life," by Jim Fay
"An emerging adult who takes the time to deeply reflect and raise their own self-awareness about their innermost desires can be guided by them if they have at least some clues from listening to who they are and what they value.”  --"How To Help My Young Adult Find Their Purpose," by Jennifer Miller
"While some parents may think that they are helping their children to make better decisions and to fix the consequences of their actions, research has shown that parental codependency may alienate children from their own feelings and distance them from self-determination. Ultimately, parents may want to consider setting up boundaries for their children, and also for themselves."  --"Failure to Launch," by Mark Banschick
I become more and more frustrated because not everyone shares this view. The first two essential parts of Montessori education are prepared caregivers and a prepared environment, and I fear I am giving my daughter neither. I do my best, but I’ve been taught to be a voiceless people-pleaser my whole life, and despite my attempts to the contrary, I am not always finding the courage to speak up in favor of autonomy, and joy, and creative freedom, for her or for myself. Plus, these things are effing expensive. I applied for financial aid at a local Montessori school and was told that their financial aid maxes out at 30 percent, meaning if we were to qualify for the maximum, and send Sagan to school part-time for three days a week, school would still cost $5000 a year. This, despite Dr. Maria Montessori explicitly designing the method for poor children.

Then I read the data about how important Montessori is, and how it’s even more effective when children come from disadvantaged or impoverished backgrounds.  It can erase differences between income levels.  “The difference in academic achievement between lower income Montessori and higher income conventionally schooled children was smaller at each time point, and was not (statistically speaking) significantly different at the end of the study," says the National Institutes of Health.  "The Montessori Method is not only superior to all alternatives, but categorically so," says America Magazine, in this article"The scientific link between executive function and school success couldn’t be clearer, but the real opportunity lies in taking that science out of the lab and putting it into practice inside the homes and classrooms of our youngest learners," says Mind in the Making, a nonprofit founded by Jeff Bezos (himself a Montessori alum).  

Still, despite the evidence of these and many other studies, education in this country is not based on science. Nothing in our country is based on actual scientific data, least of all the precious minds of our most vulnerable. As a country, we continue to use outmoded, outdated, hundreds-of-years-old traditional pedagogy.

Meanwhile, I’m watching the elementary school in our community be torn down and rebuilt with a $90 million state grant. Money that would pay for 1400 teachers, or to retrofit our public school into a Montessori one, as this low-income school in rural South Carolina did.  (Link:  "Public School Makes the Case for Montessori for All.) It feels like a purposeful attempt to ignore the reality of what is involved in good education for all children. Because a well-educated populace would mean that people have the courage to become active. They wouldn’t be consumed by anxiety and diseases of despair, cocooned inside their houses and their devices. Freedom means the courage to take action: against climate change, against racism, against children’s concentration camps.

“How can we speak of Democracy or Freedom when from the very beginning of life we mould the child to undergo tyranny, to obey a dictator? How can we expect democracy when we have reared slaves? Real freedom begins at the beginning of life, not at the adult stage. These people who have been diminished in their powers, made short-sighted, devitalized by mental fatigue, whose bodies have become distorted, whose wills have been broken by elders who say: 'your will must disappear and mine prevail!'—how can we expect them, when school-life is finished, to accept and use the rights of freedom?”  --Dr. Maria Montessori, Education for a New World

Friday, October 12, 2018

Two three break

A perfect example
What I want for my daughter, from friends and family, for her second birthday (or for Christmas, or any subsequent gift-giving occasions):

-Above all, clean air, water, and earth:  to remember that what we want most for our daughter is a future unpolluted by plastic waste, uncorrupted by vast consumer monopolies, and that our most ardent wish is that money not be spent in her name on things that are destroying her future.
-tools.  Actual tools, sized for a child’s hands, tools that actually work and do things, not sets from Amazon or Target or Walmart.
-sports equipment
-an actual basketball or football or soccer ball
-a baseball bat or baseball glove
-a tennis racket
-a ukulele
a small-sized lacrosse stick (preferably used)
-real, small-sized things, made of cloth or metal or wood, not plastic.  Homemade things, things made by artisans, or craftspeople, paid a living wage.
-framed art
-real rain gear.  Not something cute from a box store, but something that will keep her dry and warm if we decide to go and play in the rain.
-Brownell binoculars
-a sturdy wooden steps tool with two steps
-a crinkle cutter
-child-sized baking and cooking implements (not sets; not toys)
-a Waldorf hand kite
-a Waldorf art book
-anything from these sites:, How We Montessori,
-anything from
-anything from a B corporation
-solar panels for our house
-an electric car [Karl learned to drive when he was 3.  Just saying.]
-a spaceship
-rock-climbing holds
-a child-sized guitar
-a go-cart
-a magnetic chess set
-art or music or gymnastics or children’s yoga classes, which we find it difficult to afford
-two days a week at Montessori school
-peace on earth
-that you match whatever you spend on gifts for hers dollar for dollar with investments in her college fund, or in divested mutual funds
-To remember that we are raising our daughter as an anti-consumerist.  To remember that you are not just buying her gifts but you are spending your dollars on a future for her—either one with an ocean emptied of fish and flooded with plastic soup, or one with a functional, joyful civilization not riven by climate chaos.  To remember that *you* are the one supporting that future for her in how you spend your dollars.  In fact, how you spend your dollars is the only real way you are building a future for her—one way or another.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Upon the bitter green she walks

Why feminism is worth fighting for
My second post of 2018, and my first since June.  I am writing less briskly but I am still writing. That’s important.  Last year we moved to Wareham, Massachusetts.

I spent last summer driving back and forth to Maine for Sagan’s immunizations, and working on the new house.  The move was in September--a whole year ago now--and the walls and windows remain unfinished and the house itself is a work in progress.  Also, and we may be the only family in New England to have consciously made this decision, we are living without internet.  The discussion continues to be whether or not there is a way to get internet (including smart phones) that would not involve having life taken over by it—and I can’t think of a way.

So I am living without it, like the Amish.  It makes it difficult to maintain a blog, although I’ve been intending to since Sagan’s birth.  In order to put these words on paper, and then onscreen, I must close myself in a room with earplugs, and harden my heart to the banging on the door, and somehow find a way toward a creative self.

My last adventure was attending all three days of the “International Fiction Now” conference at Brown University, a 50-minute drive from Wareham, just for the gorgeous pleasure of hearing sentences strung together.  It was a celebration of the work of Robert Coover, to whom I can’t help but refer now as “Bob.”  It was a stunning assortment of writers.  And also rather misogynist.

One of the things that happened in my two-year hiatus, in addition to me birthing a daughter, was the #metoo movement, to which I listened, enrapt.  (When one does not have internet, one listens to the radio during all waking hours.  As if one lived in 1944.)  Having a child makes you realize the inequities between men and women like nothing else.  I was struck by Robert Coover’s story the final night.  Yes, it was absurdist.  Yes, experimental.  It’s more or less a story as a joke, a story as a concept—but like so many of his stories there’s much more going on, and underneath the surface is a wife cooking and cleaning and raising children for a man, a man she has sex with in the moonlight, a man for whom she toils.  And I kept finding these women at the edges of the conference.  The wife at the end of Jonathan Baumbach’s story “Baby,” who announces to the author of the story—busy writing his collection of short stories with a one-year-old baby as main character—that lunch is ready.  Were I so lucky as to have someone announce that lunch were ready for me.  Dorcas Palmer in Marlon James’s reading from “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”  Even the beautiful younger women, in their sixties, or seventies, accompanying the decrepit male writers who read at the conference, in their eighties and nineties.  These women, most second or third wives, were the ones doing the child-rearing, the dishes, the laundry while their male partners wrote.  I thought this, as I thought of my own daughter at home.

In absolute numbers the percentage of women writers reading at the conference, in the sessions I attended, was 38 percent—11 men to seven women.  It reminded me of this interview I heard on NPR: “If there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50.  And if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.” —Our Feminized Society
[the quote is from Geena Davis, and her Institute on Gender in Media--lots of great stuff in her interview, and at the Institute's Research page]

Even that doesn’t represent the truth of it, because 100 percent of the late-night sessions—the key evening speakers, the elder statesmen of the conference—were men:  Ben Marcus, TC Boyle, Bill Kennedy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and of course, Bob Coover.  The women, even such impressive names as Edwidge Dandicat and Siri Hustvedt, were relegated to the afternoons.  And the highest percentage of women was in the first-night session, with six readers—four women, two men. Six readers crammed into one session that went late into the night, at a smaller venue, with each reader given less time.

As the New Yorker so succinctly puts it:

But the balance is so hard.  Especially now that I understand the visceral tug of motherhood.  I mean that literally:  I feel it in my viscera.

Most of it is the sheer pleasure of mothering.  It’s pleasurable.  The oxytocins bursts after childbirth and during nursing—the largest injection of the love and happiness hormone that human beings ever experience.  I understand why women keep doing it.

“Joy has been the great surprise of motherhood.”  —Karen Russell, "Orange World," @NewYorker [again] #karenrussell #orangeworld

From the novel “Motherhood” by Sheila Heti:
“On the one hand, the joy of children.  On the other hand, the misery of them.  On the one hand, the freedom of not having children.  On the other hand, the loss of never having had them—but what is there to lose?  The love, the child, and all those motherly feelings that the mothers speak about in such an enticing way, as though a child is something to have, not something to do.  The doing is what seems hard.  The having seems marvelous.”
Spoiler alert:  she decides not to have kids.  Spoiler alert:  and still has time to write a novel.

My main feeling after hearing “Orange World” by Karen Russell was jealousy.  She, too, had a “geriatric pregnancy.” Her discussion of breastfeeding and the joy of having a child into your late thirties can only be autobiographical.  So I assume, without having the time or inclination to google. But she took that time and wrote it, used it to make this exquisite, violent, crepuscular story.

I’ve been doing some spectacular reading though.  During the course of Sagan’s incubation and infancy, I read all seven volumes of Proust.  If we named her after the Princesse de Sagan, then I knew I must read the entirety of “In Search of Lost Time."  That is the gift Sagan gave me by being born, the gift that K. gave me by originally suggesting we name her after the astrophysicist—that now I have become acquainted with these other Sagans, too.  The ultimate aristocrats for Marcel Proust, and the nom de plume of Francoise Sagan.

My favorite Frenchism within "In Search of Lost Time"—he spends a lot of pages describing aspects and vernacular of the French language, some of the funniest parts, if you're acquainted with French—was how Francoise, the housekeeper and a much more important character than you’d expect—called the Princesse de Sagan “la Sagante.”

La Sagante.  That’s my daughter all over.

Francoise—another woman who hangs around doing the cooking and cleaning for a man that writes. Or doesn’t write, but sits and broods about writing.  (Not dissimilarly to Coover’s main character.) She dusts his pages.  And rearranges them.

As does Francoise Sagan—her book Bonjour Tristesse stunned me.  Somehow also she rearranges Proust’s story and retells it, all those hundreds of thousands of words in 100 slim pages.  How is it that more people don’t read this book, or talk about it?  Or know about it?  Because it was written by a nineteen-year-old girl?  It strikes me that there are so many teenaged girl heroines because it’s not until later in life that women get beaten down by being told what they are not to do.  Joan of Arc, Francoise Sagan.  Albertine.

I am writing about misogyny in a blog post I will never publish because I am afraid of a misogynist backlash.  What will Bob Coover think?  What will Rick Moody think?  What will William Kennedy think?  Will any of them ever read my novel in which a nineteen-year-old girl is beaten by her boyfriend?  Is it misogynist that I have written this scene?  Or is it misogynist that we don’t have more novels in which this ubiquitous violence is explored, discussed?  Two women die every week at the hands of their domestic partners.  Not in the US, in Britain.  In the US it’s four a day.  And it isn’t even news.  When was the last time you heard a story about domestic violence on TV?  Or are you too busy watching puppy videos?

My daughter makes me want to be a better feminist.  I want this violence not to touch her.  I want discrimination and self-doubt not to hamstring her as it has hamstrung me.  Most men, and many women, still claim such discrimination doesn’t exist.  Yet I see how already it affects her.  How all of the characters in Winnie the Pooh (save Kanga, the mother--natch) and Sesame Street are male.  How people respond strangely when she collects spiders, or spends half an hour staring at a bulldozer—and respond gushingly when she kisses a stuffed animal.  I see how my friends with boy children are embarrassed when their sons clutch at baby dolls.  Children aren’t stupid.  Millennia of evolution have caused them to be exquisitely sensitive to our every nonverbal, subconscious response.

Girl children know.  I know.  You know.  They know.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Every man got the right to decide his own destiny

A new post, my first since Sagan's birth, and she is nineteen months old, so that's a nineteen month hiatus.  I suppose that's about the length of time it takes for things to normalize.  Not that they have or ever will—I don't want things to go back to "normal"—she is a joy, and every minute I get to spend with her is a gift.  Nevertheless I am beginning to understand, now, why there are so few mothers who are also artists.

It is difficult to manage motherhood and any kind of creative life, especially if you also include self-care.  Balance is challenging.  I know it gets easier every day, as it already is, as I have time to write these words, and I actually want to cherish each of these days to the best of my ability.

Everyone says it goes so fast, and already it does.  Knowing how fast it goes doesn't change its speed, and I am still surprised by the experience of it.  Of course I also have bad days, including this week.  It's easy to feel like I am squandering, already, my daughter's childhood, with fear and self-doubt and recrimination.

Nothing changes when you have children.  It's just an overlay atop the person you already are, the fears and doubts you already had.  And of course everything changes when you have children.  Every cliche about parenthood is true verbatim.

She is still willing to cuddle close to my breast, to snug up beneath my chin, to come to me without hesitation to kiss her boo-boos.

When things are hard, all I have to do is remember how astounding she is.  She is uniquely herself, as, of course, all babies are, all humans are—but still. She is herself.  She is amazing, and I can't take any credit.  She's so independent, and easy-going, and creative.

Since her birth, I've been reading about Dr. Maria Montessori, the Italian doctor and feminist who invented the "Montessori method."  If I had to sum up her philosophy, I'd say that she insists on the autonomy of each individual child, that from birth we are learning through experience, and our job as parents and teachers is to present the world in such a way that children can develop confidence in their own abilities, to be able to care for themselves independently as soon as they are able.

I am shocked by the dysfunctional consumerism that has arisen around children in our culture.  How many contemporary parents have children kept forever in cages:  cribs, high chairs, walkers, strollers, car seats, playpens.  All made of plastic, all cheap, all destined for the ash heap of history.  Often these babies have screens as their only companion.  All in the name of "safety." The devil has been renamed "safety" by our culture.  People are so afraid of their children bumping their heads or scraping their knees that they'd rather yell at them, suppress their every instinct toward freedom, independence, creativity, adventure.  This is selfishness. Our fear taking precedence over their self-development.

"We cannot know the consequence of suppressing the spontaneity of childhood.  We may even suffocate life itself.  That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor should be respected with a kind of religious veneration."  —Maria Montessori

All human beings are uniquely special, especially precious:  all of us have our cargo to carry into the world.  As my epigraph says:  we each have our race set out for us.

"…you are happy for your child because you know that she is happy.  You are happy not because your child is a 'super baby.'  At any age, developing an inflated idea of self leads eventually to isolation and loneliness.  Our goal is to help children appreciate that they are unique human beings and special to us.  However, we want them to realize that all other human beings are unique, too."  —Paula Polk Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jessen, "Montessori from the Start"

Yes, this has become a "mommy blog."  Sucks for you.  Although I can't help thinking that if someone like Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth decided to write online about parenting, their website would be called "a series of short essays on fatherhood," and not a daddy blog.  Yet another example of the diminutive way we refer to motherhood, the saccharine bromides that steal away the resonance of mothering.  We cheapen and diminish the experience of women and infantilize mothers because to do otherwise would mean that we would HEAR THEIR VOICES:  how deep the experience is, how terrifying, how hard.

But really, how easy she is.  Her needs are simple: food, water, comfort, new experience.  She is filled with joy at being in the world.  Even when she is having a hard time it's for a reason that makes sense and all she really needs is reassurance, love, attunement.  

I love how she makes this face when she nurses, as if milk is the most delicious substance known to creation, this little quiver in her eyebrows as her eyes lower, as if she's a critic tasting the most delicious wine of all of history.  There's how she clutches my fingers when I'm trying to do something, just to be closer to me.  To keep me focused on her.  How she wraps her arms around my boob like it's a huge beach ball, or a body pillow.  How she utters this deep sigh, pulls off, and rests her head gently against my breast.  Her laugh.  It's the most beautiful sound in the world—deeper than expected, almost guttural, like a chuckle—oh.  It is darling.  It makes my heart hurt.  How smart she is, how she's been signing since she was four months old, and how hard she tries to communicate with us, how interested she is by the world, especially new things, new people, new places.  How beautiful she is, even for a baby—her porcelain skin, her gorgeous birthmark, her little curved thumbs, her almond eyes, bow mouth, perfect nose, wide cheeks.  These are the cliches but they are also true.  How strong she is.  How when she tries to do something she pushes with every ounce of her muscle.  How hard she grips my fingers, so hard she can dangle from them.  How she jumps, how hard she tries to do what we're trying to do.  There are so many ways to love her.  The way she looks at me, as if she's drinking me in, just so curious about who I am and what's going on, no matter what I'm doing, as if she could just stare at me for decades.

I wrote this paragraph a while ago and already she has grown so much.  I keep thinking that all of these words I have written on this site, for twelve years now, are actually for her, for no one else.  I just didn't know that when I wrote them.  The dear grad student to whom I address my journals:  her.  And she'll have to read through all my self-hatred and ingratitude too.  She makes me want to be better, and teaches me how to be better.

[Some good Montessori blogs, for the curious:

Saturday, December 31, 2016

I wish I lived in the power and the light

Mother nature's daughter
I miss the days when everyone poured out their heart on epistolary MySpace blogs.  I also miss the Reagan administration, for different reasons, so that should come as no surprise.

Now we live in a world of instant Instagram selfies, and I am nostalgic for the web log of yesteryear, the Livepad courier-font blogs, where we were allotted more than 140 characters to explicate the intricacies of our lives.

So I am announcing the birth of Sagan Tomasik-Jenks, born in October, via the interwebs.  This is a photograph of her from Thanksgiving in Tennessee, in her cast-off boys' and girls' clothes.  Isn't she the most gorgeous thing you have ever seen?

I have posted twice on this blog this year and I make no apology.   The best thing about real friends is how you can pick up where you left off as if no time has passed.  I have eight minutes before midnight in 2016 and that long to catch you up on my life.  Sagan, her father, and I still live in Maine, although we were in Tennessee when we took that picture, and we are in Massachusetts for the New Year now.  Spirit, our boat, still sits in the driveway, and we plan to live aboard her.  Eventually.  Or start a micro-papermill in Bridgewater.  Or farm sheep.

But I see having a baby as no reason to stop sailing.  For reference:

And especially:

It has been a year for grief and withdrawal.  K's stepfather, and also his great-aunt, more like a grandmother to him, died this year.  Also pregnancy, an experience of becoming another being's vessel.  I had thoughts about hollowness, emptiness--and the beauty of feeling a person come alive inside me.  It's hard to put all this into words.  I understand more thoroughly why there are so few mother artists, at least of the canonical variety.  This different kind of more silent art, breeding life.

It makes me think of platitudes and I feel positive loathing towards platitudes.  But of birth and death, seasons beginning and ending.  I am more conscious of the passage of time than I ever have been.  I measure weeks in the inches that Sagan grows.  Already she has outgrown the elephant onesie in the photograph.  She wore another elephant outfit today, and she may fit into it one more time.  I grieve the passage of time for which I am utterly grateful.

And my sister's second son was born yesterday.  For him I am utterly grateful, and for the gifts of God.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

I’ve been drifting along in the same stale shoes

Today I continue to struggle with the inadequacy of everything I have to say. On the other hand I continue to SAY it. It’s the human impulse, to spurt out our innermost selves, to have them validated by the other, even a fictional other that may or may not exist. You, dear reader.

Paul Simon sang: “Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears.”

Bob Dylan sang, angry:
“Who killed Davey Moore? Why and what’s the reason for?
It was destiny, it was fate, it was God’s will.”

Isaiah said: “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor.”

And Jesus said: “Woe is the child-bearing woman, the woman with a baby at her breast.” (Matthew 24:19)

Why? Because in loving others we always open ourselves up to disappointment, death, grief?

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

Here, here. In my heart.

I find it easier and more comforting sometimes to believe that we are all just animals, and animals live and die by chance, by fate, by the exigencies of mutant DNA. Like I am driven forward inexorably not by my own force of will but by biology. Involuntarily, without a choice. Only characters in fiction can say no their biology. Us living creatures, as neurobiology increasingly suggests, are driven forward by the cortical response in our amygdala, forcing us to eat, to sleep, to mourn, to procreate despite the woes of procreation.

I feel this cloying need for other people’s approval and validation and love, but only people I deem worthy, and when I receive it I no longer deem them worthy, like Woody Allen not wanting to be a member of any club that’d let him join. This endless neediness makes human relationships so hard, and my neediness itself seems another trick of my maladaptive evolutionary brain, an evolutionary need for a troglodytic tribe, a community, oxytocin. It’s easiest to think of it that way, that I am a slightly more complex monkey, 99 percent the same as a chimpanzee, pounding away on my cosmic keyboard. My overdeveloped consciousness yet another trick of mother evolution.

Betsy Scholl, Maine poet laureate and my friend, says in her poem “Bass Flute”:
“No talk here of Meaning,
it’s all ing,
raw urge that nudges the wall between
music and noise.”

It is so, so much easier and more comforting to believe that nothing means anything. I used to question how pure materialists survived, because if I stopped believing in God and Holy Spirit and the noumenal I’d immediately off myself, because then what reason is there not to? But there is a reason, naturally, again—sheer biology. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower also drives me away from death, towards survival, all my ancestors, the force of their genetics driving me to live, live, breed, live, breathe my last breath far, far away from here.

It is so comforting that I cannot believe it. It’s too easy. Another trick of the devil, convincing me he doesn’t exist, that he doesn’t live inside of us, inside of me, in my brain, in my head, in my endless rounds of self-recrimination, self-doubt, self-consciousness.

“For the Lord has not given us a spirit of fear; but of love, and of power, and of a sound mind.”

God is here, in the love Karl and I have for each other. In the love I have for my sister, distant in grief and space and time. In the love I have for those who have died.

Today also I make bread, as I do often in winter. Mixed dry ingredients sit atop my fridge awaiting water, kneading, my careful hands. Also awaiting gluten, a needed ingredient for a primarily whole-wheat recipe I’m trying, which requires additional gluten to obtain a light, airy crumb, as opposed to the dense, doughy breads enriched with oatmeal and eggs and milk I tend to bake. It’s funny to me with all the hype about gluten-free that I’m waiting to make bread till I can find a place to buy extra gluten, which is, after all, just the protein in wheat. My mom used to always add an extra tablespoonful to her bread-machine recipes. Sonia and I used to joke around, when we went to the vegan cafe near her house, that we’d order our squash mac-and-cheese “with extra gluten,” but here I am, waiting around for extra gluten.

The gluten is the protein that forms the architecture of the bread, inside which the yeast bubbles are able to solidify, grow, lift. The gluten is in the flour, milled from grain, grown from seed that each summer again sprouts. Winter turns to summer, snow melts to rain, the green fuse drives the germ to awake, to send forth its budding head. Jesus, of course, is our bread, the bread of life, and perhaps the Spirit is his gluten, allowing the God who lives within to bubble and grow.

Each day layers on the next. Again I grieve. Again I surrender. Again I pray: give me today my daily bread.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Ice dance

My baby nephew Stephen Andrew Henry died seven weeks ago today, after ten weeks of life.  I have been fighting the urge to use words to reconcile myself to his death because his death is irreconcilable.  Writing about it feels futile, as does everything else.  Words are become powerless.

“It’s all one,” said Keats.  “We keep on breathing.”  Or we don’t.  Keats didn’t, at 26.

My nephew didn’t, at 71 days.

Someday I won’t anymore, you won’t.  It’s not just the knowledge of the surety of death that this has brought home to me, but how asinine are most of my pursuits.  I want to hold on to that crystal clarity I found in the days following his death, the purity of love I felt then, in honor of him.

My intention to live only with hope from that moment on.

But it infects everything I do and write now, how God allows bad things to happen to good people, how the problem of evil is the only problem that matters, how death is a living breathing presence behind each of our backs.  And that makes all my inanity seem less important, all the ephemeral photographs of a New England summer.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.”

All that’s left is an empty shape, an outline, a blank space, and if we heal then that ragged hole will be gone too and we’ll have nothing left of him.  But words are the only weapon I have with which to fight the darkness.

Art Spiegelman, Maus

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Fingerboard Shelter to New York City to Providence to Marion, Massachusetts

Wednesday 24 June 2015
4.1 miles

Today I hiked past the Lemon Squeezer, which, if I'm honest, is the whole reason I decided to hike this section.  In 2004, this was the first white blaze that I blue-blazed, thus, in my mind, invalidating my entire thru-hike.  Not really, but kind of.  When Big County and I came to this section, northbound, I couldn't get up the rock face.  I took as many pictures as I could manage (I had to make it to the bus, after all) but they do not manage to convey how steep and challenging this boulder set in the middle of the trail is.

In 2004 I came here, to this patch, a rock I had to climb straight up, vertically.  I tried it first with my pack on, throwing myself against the rock.  That failed.  Then I handed my pack up, to County, and tried it without the pack.  Still no luck.  I was not strong enough then, or now, to pull myself up vertically using just my arm strength.  I never have been.  In middle school, I was unable to sustain a ladder hold (the girlie version of a pull-up) for even a second.  In elementary school, I did not play on monkey bars.

And there's no place to rest weight on a foot, although it is very hard to tell from the photographs.  I could have asked County for help.  He could have offered.  Neither of us did those things—for me, asking for help during a physical challenge is as bad as failing at the physical challenge.  In those days, the side trail around the rock, probably a ten-foot diversion, was white-blazed.  In those days, I was a purist.  I'd passed every single white blaze from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Southfields, New York.  To the Lemon Squeezer.

But I knew, and he knew, that the trail went up that boulder, not around its side.  Today, in 2015, it's even more clear, and more well-marked:  the side trail is blue-blazed (meaning it's not official Appalachian Trail) and marked "Easy Way."  [Incidentally it's also clear the the Appalachian Trail, especially in New York, is built and maintained by sadists.]  So if someone's hiking pure, it's get through the Lemon Squeezer or else.

I didn't in 2004.  I took the side trail and its gimme white blaze.  I was determined to succeed today.  Every day of this three-week hike, if I'm honest, has been building to this moment.  Back in Massachusetts I reminded people of the Lemon Squeezer, and for the last couple of days north-bounders have been warning me: it's going to be even worse for you, coming down.  I didn't care.  I was going to get down that boulder if I had to take all day doing it.

But I kept asking myself questions.  Would it count if I couldn't do it with my pack on?  What if I just threw myself down and fell—would that count?  What if I couldn't do it southbound and took the side trail around, and then was able to pull myself up going north?  That was what I missed the first time, but didn't that mean I was taking the easy way in another sense?

So I was eager with anticipation and nervousness and determination.  And pain.  My knees are getting worse, not better.  I'm walking now with a noticeable and humiliating limp.  When I come up on people on the trail, I double my speed, gritting my teeth, and falling back into my heaving monstrous limp once they go by, when no one can see.

I passed two north-bounders in the morning, hikers with daypacks, one in jeans—two brothers, it looked like, of vaguely mixed race—maybe half-Latino, or Arabic.  We nodded and passed each other, and they looked at me with that suspicious look one would give a Martian.  I'm mysterious out here—not just my all-black hiking spandex, when it's ninety degrees out; but my giant, ripped, oddly-shaped eleven-year-old pack; my barefoot-running shoes; my green glasses and the communist cap I bought at the Lao border.  I gritted my teeth and pressed on.

Then the Lemon Squeezer.  I came to it and barely had time to take some pictures and plan my attack when they came up behind me.  I hadn't thought about them in hours—but of course if they were out for the day they'd have to hike out and turn around.  Being watched is the worst—I find I'm able to attempt almost anything if I'm alone.  Hiking by myself in North Carolina I climbed a hundred yards down a sheer cliff to retrieve a food-bag that had rolled off.  In Aroostook by myself I spread out sewing projects and do cooking experiments and set up composting bins in weird arrangements without fear.  But as soon as someone's watching—even a single person—I cringe in humiliation, fearing their criticism.  Nowhere is this more true than in feats of physical strength.  The best thing about backpacking is being able to walk alone, almost always.

And here I was, at the crucial point of my hike, a moment I'd been thinking about for eleven years.  With two strangers watching.

I let them by.

"Go ahead," I said.  "It'll take me a while."

The first, fitter and smaller, got down relatively easily, sliding halfway on his butt and then leaping.  The bigger brother also did okay, relying more heavily on his rear end.  He did panic a little, partway, making me feel better.

Then, they turned around to stay and watch me descend.  I couldn't tell them to shove off, keep going, that I'd do it myself.

First I tried with my pack and when I realized immediately tit was impossible I sent it down.  They offered to grab it, but I wanted to be able to do it all by myself.  I hung the pack as far down as I could, and it was still a good two feet off the ground.  So I dropped it, and it felt on its side and rolled over.  No problem.

Then I positioned myself to come down, both men watching.  I slid my butt to the point where I couldn't go any farther without dropping, my feet awkwardly braced on rock, my arms clinging above me.  

I don't really remember getting down, or maybe I don't want to remember.  I did say at one point:

"I'm going to die!  I'm going to die!"

And one brother stepped forward and offered me a hand somehow and I made it down alive.  Didn't break any bones.

But does it count?  He helped.  I didn't get down by myself.  Did I pass that blaze?  Can I say I walked that stretch of trail when I didn't?  I fell down it, barely avoiding injuring myself—I didn't walk.  I still haven't hiked it northbound, which was my original intention, to do it both directions, when I came to that point, so I could say that I'd hiked this section purely, both north- and southbound.

The two day-hikers raced ahead, embarrassed for all of us, maybe.  That's how it felt.  I limped on, barely able to walk.  Flagged down my bus at the side of the road, rode to New York City while all the people held their handkerchiefs against their nose against my hiker scent.  I didn't see them again.  But I keep thinking about it.

In the Bible, angels often appear in pairs.  They are nameless and disappear mysteriously.  In one of my favorite Bible stories, a stranger appears alongside two disciples, on the road to Emmaus.  He walks beside them, but they don't notice him, or don't think to wonder who he is.

I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't been there.  I probably would have made it down, probably wouldn't have hurt myself, at least not more than I'm already hurt.

When I missed that section of trail in 2004, in some ways, it ruined my hike for me.  After that I abandoned purism.  We skipped miles of trail, including a big chunk of Vermont so that we could make it to Katahdin in time.  In other ways, it was the most important part of my hike.  I said that it was a gift, that I'd been set free, that what the AT does is cure a person of purism, because you're always going to break some rule for yourself.  You'll slack-pack, or hike a section the wrong direction.  The trail will be routed past a high-running river, or around a washout.  Its difficulty and length is the reason it's so important, because purism, in some sense, becomes impossible.

But this missed blaze haunted me more than any of the others, because this was my breaking point.  And now I come to it again, and this time again, my desire for perfection is flouted, subverted by the appearance of mysterious strangers.  

Remembering those late weeks in Maine, almost to Katahdin—how in pain I was.  How much I suffered.  And how I damaged my body in ways that are only beginning to manifest now, injuring my knees and shoulders.  I did that because of my clenched-jaw stubbornness that refuses to ask for help, refuses to accept help, and refuses to accept my own weakness.  It was good that I skipped that blaze, because we made it to Katahdin.  The handful of miles we missed are always going to be there if I want to hike them, and if I'd forced myself to hike them then, I could have hurt myself to the point where I had to abandon the thru-hike entirely.  I was completely unable to listen to my body then.  I didn't know how.

Maybe God's trying to tell me something.  It's okay to be weak.  It's okay to be imperfect.  It's okay to be in pain.  It's okay to accept help.  What's not okay is insistence on perfection, in myself or in anyone else.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

West Mountain to Fingerboard Shelter

9.1 miles
23 June 2015

My last day on the trail.  Today was excruciating—my knees and feet and shoulders are in pain—and I'm feeling fatigued and I had chills all day and I'm worried about Lyme even though I haven't found a bulls-eye rash or a deer tick on me since Connecticut.  I'm at the shelter tonight with two flippers, two Gamers, and the first south-bounder I've met, Trek.  Figures we'd meet on the last day—like me, he's a former thru-hiker out for not the whole trail but a section.  But he's going all the way to Springer, starting somewhere in New Hampshire.  A much longer section than mine, almost over.

It's a good group.  Crocrocket, a Gamer, packed in some beers and I made a hooked up chili ramen with tuna, using up as much of my leftover food as possible.

The Lyme thing is really weird.  Maybe it's just groupthink, or paranoia, since everyone's worried about it, but I really did feel especially fatigued today.  But that's the joke about it, that all the symptoms mimic trail exhaustion.  I still feel so tired that I feel like I could fall asleep right now as I am writing.

I'm unsure if I should get tested when I get back to Marion or if I should have my knees checked out—they're really scaring me with the level of pain I'm feeling.  It's tough to feel motivated when I don't feel like I ever had my shoulder pain treated seriously three years ago and I never ended up with an MRI.  I have a hard time convincing people of the legitimacy of my repetitive stress injuries, although I don't know if it's not to be expected after 3000 trail miles.  That's not bragging, or an excuse;  just acknowledging that I spent a significant chunk of my twenties walking, and my joints are beginning to show the signs of it.

Or maybe it's Lyme.

It scares me, though, especially when I've been falling in love again so thoroughly with hiking, and convincing myself I could do the Long Trail later this summer, or head north to hike the Hundred-Mile Wilderness with the north-bounders I've met.  But it's my last night camping, my last night in a shelter, my last night with my knees propped on my rolled-up tent.  The last night with hiker stink, the last night outdoors.  Tomorrow I'll be back inside—that's if I can flag down a bus to New York City on the side of the road.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Graymoor Friary to West Mountain Shelter

22 June 2015
12.9 miles

Turns out yesterday I didn't go far enough, as usual.  I went far enough today, maybe too far.  Maybe I'd have been better off camping by myself at one of these lovely camping sites on top of the mountain, closer both today and tomorrow to water.  I like camping by myself but I also like sleeping with other people at the shelter.

I was really excited about today's shelter—.6 off of the trail on a ridge-line with spectacular views of the New York City skyline—but I set up in the corner where I can support my battered knees on my rolled-up tent and I can't even see the view.  Today was too exhausting for me to enjoy it anyway, and there's no water to cook and I'm dehydrated and feeling sick.  I was afraid I'd diarrhea or vomit on the way here.  I'm not eating dinner.  It doesn't appeal.

Maybe this means I am sick.  I have two more days of hiking and then I have to flag down a bus to New York City at the trail crossing.  Supposedly it comes by.  I don't even care.  I'll wait till dark, then camp there if it doesn't come.  I have enough food, I can yogi water if I need to, and there's a hotel in the nearby town.

There's no water at the shelter here, and unlike the north-bounders who were able to collect water within a half-mile as they climbed the ridge, I had to carry my pitiful two liters all the way from drinking fountains at the base of Bear Mountain, four miles and across two summits.  It makes sense to hoard my water for morning.

I'm with two guys tonight—No Hurry, a flip-flopper from Harpers Ferry whom I really like for his lackadaisical pace and great trail attitude, and Skipper, a competitive sailor, who was thrilled to hear about Spirit, our double-ended cutter.  Not that I'll be living aboard anytime soon.  I feel hypocritical about that, like everything, even my hiking.  Sure, I made it farther than any of these people have yet, all the way to Maine, but I did it at a feeble eight-month pace.  Acting like I know anything about backpacking or thru-hiking is making me feel like a liar.

In leaving the trail, in leaving this peripatetic outdoor life, where there are no restrictions or requirements on me other than following the blazes, I'm afraid that I'm going back into depression, back into the mire. Here I have autonomy and purpose and will.  In regular life I lose all of these things.  I do regain the people in my life, my family and friends.  And I do need people and their love.  Don't I?

So last night I trekked into the Graymoor Friary, remembering the layout from 2004 and happy that it was still a trail stop.  It was a 14-mile day, and by the end I was nearly in tears from the pain.  Although the bouldering is not so bad as in Massachusetts, every step onto stone jars the cartilage in my legs, feeling like bone grinding on bone.  Often I can hear it, a sound of crunching and snapping.  Every day the pain is worse, every day the last two miles more intense.

So when I got to the Friary yesterday, at the end of my day, I was ecstatic.  I followed the blue blazes to the field where I was told I could camp.  But there was no one else there.  How odd, I thought, since I'm in the thick of the pack, passing about twenty north-bounders a day.  Someone told me there had been fourteen camped here the day before.  But it was almost dark, and I went hunting for water, desperately thirsty (most of the water sources in New York are contaminated with coliform bacteria), and I was annoyed that I couldn't find it, since it's one of the reasons people stop here.  I trekked up concrete walkways to the picnic tables and pavilion where I'd slept two nights in 2004, and then farther up, to a small chapel, where a priest was adjusting flowers or something.  I nodded at him but went right to the tap without saying anything and filled all my water bottles.  He looked at me oddly but I thought it was my  spandex mini-shorts and at that point I just wanted to stop putting pressure on my legs.  So I went down and camped and cooked by myself, in my wet tent, and by the time I was done it was dark and I slept.

In the morning, troops of hikers started walking past me as I packed.  Evidently the actual ball-field for camping was a few more blue blazes down the road, where there was a shower and plenty of water and a lot of camped north-bounders.  So as usual I gave up too soon, and that's why the priest gave me that look—another scantily clad female invading the sanctity of his monastery, the free services they provide for hikers deemed not good enough.  Maybe I'm feeling guilt for 2004, when we zeroed here and they still fed hikers, the last year they did.  I worry that we were the reason they stopped, late-season lazy-ass hikers taking advantage of their hospitality, and now I was again.  His face, and my exhausted disgust as I filled up water, keeps haunting me.

But then again I like to blame myself for everything.  So tonight I was determined to go far enough, all the way to the shelter, rather than stopping .1 or .2 ahead, as I've done so many times, losing the satisfaction of reaching an intended destination.  But my legs are shot.  My knees are getting worse.

The last two miles of the day were excruciating, as always.  After the final waterless climb, the trail stretched for a mile along this gorgeous and austere ridge piled with rocks.  I limped up and down, each step jarring, completely unable to enjoy the constant gorgeous scenery, the lichen-splattered rocks amid tufts of grass and dwarfed trees. Bewildering blue-blazed trails led off mysteriously, making me doubt if I hadn't already passed the shelter.

Then the shelter sign was missing, and I had to trust the arrow that someone had marked with a Sharpie.  Then another .6 miles of climbs and tumbles down granite boulders, not even knowing if this extended blue blaze was the right shelter trail.  That last .6 off-trail felt like six miles, up and down rocky outcroppings, with strangely blazed blue and orange and yellow trails criss-crossing the unmarked shelter trail and no water.

I could have stopped earlier and camped alone again, but I pressed on, and on, and on, and actually arrived at the promised shelter, seeing the hammocks strung up in the trees, smelling the woodsmoke.  In these last miles I find myself constant playing, please God, please God.  I am praying for a glimpse of a slanted roof, the whiff of privy that means other humans.  Now that I'm here I'm not sure the .6 was worth it.  And I'm thirsty.

I'm happy I only have two more days, for the sake of my body, but I'm nervous about the bus ride to NY and thence to Providence or Boston.  I wish I was continuing, because I love life out here, but I really think my body can't stand it.    On the trail, I am whole.  Minus my knees.

So here, tonight, for one more night, I am home—hungry and dehydrated and sick—but home. In a three-sided shelter, with stinky strangers and mosquitoes and no view, carrying everything I need.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Aroostook County, Maine

Last days in Massachusetts, summer at Mary's Pond
It's probably not obvious that I've been slowly posting my log from my Appalachian Trail hike, which lasted three weeks and took me to about the mid-point of New York state on the AT.  Then Big County (K.) and I took a dory trip around Buzzard’s Bay—a week of camping and rowing and chilling out in the sun and on the water.  Then a week at camp with his brother and family, and then a week camping up the coast of Maine with some of our friends—one couple we know from the Appalachian Trail in 2004 and other County friends.

I believe I’ve spent more time in a tent than in a bed in the last two months—which is exactly as summer should be, in my opinion.  But we finally pulled into the two-year overgrown driveway on Snow Road, early and unexpected, and our neighbor called the state trooper because we hadn’t been there in so long.  Now we’re figuring out what to do with two years of burdock and goldenrod and fallen trees.  K. is hand-scything the lawn and I’m piling it in the compost bin.  I’d like to pretend I’m hand-baling hay, but I am not that skilled.

We are back in Aroostook itself.  Which means no internet, except at the super-slow library.  Last time we were here I eventually relented to $60 a month satellite internet, but I’m trying to resist this time.  There’s a peculiar kind of silence in an internet-free zone.  More and more I find that when I have it I can escape into the internet as into a kind of void.  And now that I don’t have it, I actually want to make use of it for things like pictures, words.

If that’s what it takes.  Franzen allegedly disables his wireless cards so that they can’t access the internet, going so far as to stick an ethernet cable into its port and cut it off, then sanding down the port so the computer can never again access the internet.  I have that stillness here.  Silence and stillness.  As if the County is a time capsule, or a time machine, taking me back into the past.  The house, other than accumulated mouse crap, is as it was.

I’ll continue to email in posts as I have internet access, maybe filling in some gaps in the past few months, maybe not.  I think of this as a literal world-wide-web log, a ‘blog, for myself in the future as much as for anyone else, and I want at least my anniversary hike to be preserved.  I’ve been adding links to my 2004 hike, too—again, for myself as much as for anyone else—it’s been so fun for me to go back and read those posts, to remember who I was then.  So much of it I remembered, and so much I forgot.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Clarence Fahnestock State Park to Graymoor Friary

13.8 miles
Overcast sky and American flag at vista
Everything in my tent is wet. I actually did an excellent job pitching for the rain last night and stayed perfectly dry through the tropical storm until I tried to pack up this morning. I knew I had to leave early, before the rain stopped, because thirteen miles is a big day for me, my second biggest, and I needed all of the daylight hours. But that meant leaving before all of the sensible thru-hikers, and packing in the rain.

I have not mastered packing in the rain. I don't know if anyone has, which is why my thru-hiking rule always was: never start in the rain. You can hike in the rain, but never start in the rain. Especially do not pack in the rain.

But I was so excited about this long day to Graymoor, where we stayed in 2004, and I'd planned it so long—I didn't see how bad it could be. I'd keep the rainfly over my gear. It wouldn't be that bad.

It was. Everything except the rainfly was dry when I started, and in the process of packing, everything got wet. This doesn't just mean a wet camp—it also means an exhaustingly heavy pack for this long day. You may not think that much moisture makes a difference, but it certainly does. The thirteen miles meant no time to stop and spread things in the sun (which came out, on cue, about a mile into my hike). I didn't think the terrain'd be that bad today, but as always it is relentless, and the last climb nearly killed me. So tonight, I sleep with clammy feet and wrinkled toes. Did I learn my lesson? Probably not.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

RPH Shelter to Clarence Fahnestock State Park

6.9 miles
RPH Shelter interior--amazing how I remembered this shelter as grubby and everyone kept going on and on about how nice it was.  It was nice.  The pizza was nicer.

So I write tonight as I have not written since my beginning night, camped alone in my tent, lit by red headlamp.  Tonight the highway croons to my left.  I am camped at a New York state park on the first summer weekend.  How odd that I have to come to a campground crowded with car campers for solitude.

That's how crowded the trail is.  Even today, at the concession stand, I met four thru-hikers.  None wanted to stay here, close to the highway, with no shelter.  It's supposed to rain tonight, and already it is raining.

I was lured by the state park's hot shower, not by camping alone.  But I showered and pitched in the gravelly, trashy spot reserved for AT hikers, all alone, finally and for once.  Rain pattered and I zipped myself in, alone with my books and notebook and leftover pizza.  But even then at dusk, two hikers zoomed up, shouting hello to my zipped tent, guessing which of their friends was here.

It's just me, a lowly Southbounder.  They looked cowed and went and camped at the other site.  I don't mind, really.  Maybe civilization is the only place to be alone anymore.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Morgan Stewart to RPH Shelter

9.9 miles
Morgan Stewart Shelter, this morning's starting place
Tonight a man at the shelter questioned the legitimacy of my relationship and also told me I am too old to have children. I have been looking forward to this shelter, one I remember well from 2004, one from which you may order pizza. This gentleman, August, offers to split a pizza with me. The other guy here, Gas, has already eaten Chinese. August has written 24 books for sale on Amazon. I am, also, a writer.

I mention that my partner and I are rebuilding a sailboat.

He says: why do you use that word, partner? I hear that and think—he lets the sentence drop, implying that I may be gay.

I say: I like the gender ambiguity of it.

I wish I had said: why does it matter if my partner is male or female?

He says: there must be something wrong with him.
He says: why not boyfriend?

I say: because there's a deeper level of commitment. And implied in partnership is equality.

I say that I see in marriage after marriage a lack of equality. With women performing a greater share of housework and child-rearing, and also a greater percentage of sacrifice: of dreams, goals, ambition. I say: I've had friends divorce after less than a year. I say: how can you can what they have a marriage and what I have not? Maybe marriage is something that take a lifetime to accomplish, and one doesn't know if one is truly married till one is dead. Maybe marrying, like love, is a verb.

Gas chimes in: his 33-year-old marriage is a partnership.

I am perhaps defensive. I do not know if I always believe these things that I say. I know that part of me, the part of me indoctrinated by Disney and my evangelical family, still believes that my relationship carries no legitimacy because it does not have a certificate of marriage. But I know that I believe in commitment and partnership. And also I see the sacrifices that all women in relationships make.

Then he asks my age.

I tell the truth. I don't think I've managed to lie about my age yet in my life. I may be living like a 27-year-old but I am 37.

He says: I guess you don't need to worry about children then.

He apologizes under his next breath. It still stings.

Even not knowing whether I ever wanted children. Not knowing now. Feeling that because of gender discrimination, I was never allowed to know what I want. I still don't know how to know what I want. I don't know if I want children because I've always been told that I must. I push against that, still. As I am being informed about my own life by yet another man, a man explicit in saying he'd want to provide an income while his wife took care of house and kin.

I am angry. These things make me angry.

I tell him about this study: even mothers watching their daughters check their cell phones twice as often as when they are watching sons. I brush my teeth and go to bed.