Fleshing Out the Five: Into the Woods, Part 2

Because I am nothing if not stubborn af, here I am with another dive into the details of my Counting to Five post!

At the start of SOLSC month, I wrote about getting lost in the woods when I was at a writing retreat upstate this past fall. In my list post, the fourth item on the list divulged that my lost-in-the-woods experience hadn’t, in fact, been the first. And so I wanted to write out the other times I’ve been lost in the woods … and what I’ve realized as I started working on this “fleshing out” of those times is that I’m going to need, as it were, a bigger boat. There’s too much to say for one post! In any case, let’s get into it.

For all the fact that I have a really great sense of direction, there has been more than one occasion when a forest has turned me around and tried to swallow me. My sense of direction isn’t legendary, but it’s strong — so strong that my family used to rely on it when I was a child. But clearly, forests are able to throw me off my bearings with ease.

Fox, my sister, was in the Girl Scouts when she was a kid. I’d never been a Girl Scout, but she had a lot of fun with it, and sometimes I went along as almost-adult supervision.

One year, there was a picnic planned in a gorgeous park in our ara, Thatcher Park. My family went there for picnics sometimes, too. I remember it as huge and untouched-seeming. Yes, there were picnic areas and trails, but mostly it seemed like a hilly forest with streams and waterfalls and only occasional breaks in the trees for the sun to stream through. I loved that park.¹

The Girl Scout picnic was in a tiny half-clearing in the woods. A bunch of girls, a handful of moms, and me. There was a ton of food, lots of games. At some point, someone suggested a hike on one of the trails, and about half of us went.

I don’t know where or how we lost the trail, only that we for-sure did lose it. I don’t remember when we realized we were lost. I think some of us knew we were lost before anyone said it out loud and made it real.

I was a teenager and not the other of any child in the group. I can’t imagine how hard it was for the moms to know we were lost and to remain calm, to have to act as though there was no real problem and that we were all on an adventure. I know I wasn’t worried, but I realize now that my confidence was ridiculous, based on my ignorance. I acknowledged that we were lost, but I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to find our way because we’d all been to Thatcher Park and it was a park, after all. How hard could it be to get un-lost? We’d have to wander a bit and we’d be fine.

Looking at Thatcher Park now — thank you, Google, a thing that didn’t exist back then in the wild and wooly pre-Internet days — I see how crazy my sense of calm was. Thatcher Park is aa few thousand acres big. We’d have had to wander much more than “a bit,” and that wandering wouldn’t seamlessly bring us to anything familiar. We were in trouble, but I didn’t know it. I’m betting the moms knew.

We walked in the woods a long time. The girls were pretty fine. At first, they surely didn’t know we weren’t on a real trail, but even if they knew, maybe they just trusted their mothers to get us where we were going. That’s usually a reasonable thing for a kid to be able to do. And even after we’d voiced our belief that we were lost, the girls were fine. For them, it really was an adventure. And I guess that’s a testament to how easy their lives were, how good a job their parents had done raising them to feel comfortable and safe in whatever environment they found themselves. That’s a gift. No one freaked out, no one cried. They stayed buoyant and game, kept marching along with a clear sense that we’d be fine. And that was a gift to the moms. I kind of love that, thinking about it now. It impresses me. Of course, maybe they just had the same false sense of safety, I had in that moment, believing Thatcher Park to be some docile little postage-stamp-sized park.

After we’d been hiking a LONG time, we came out of the trees into a sunny clearing full of some beekeeper’s hives. I’d never seen an apiary before, but somehow I knew what the hives were, knew to tell the kids not to open them or mess with them.² I thought it was cool to just suddenly come across a little colony of beehives.

Past the bees was a road and a choice — walk right or walk left? How were we supposed to decide? We chose to go left. Maybe either direction would eventually have gotten us back to the rest of the troop. Maybe turning right would have gotten us there faster. We’ll never know. What we do know is that the road eventually brought us to a  Park entrance and that entrance eventually brought us back to our group.

And the girls had had it right — it was an adventure. They had a lot of fun telling and retelling the story of our being lost, of finding the beehive nation, of the LONG hike on the road. I’m sure the moms were hugely relieved … and maybe treated themselves to hot toddies when they got home that night!

That experience of being lost was quite different from my experience in the finger lakes, the one I wrote about that inspired this post. At no point was I afraid when I was with the Scouts, and I’d definitely been freaked out last fall. And sure, that could be because I wasn’t alone when I was with the Scouts. And also yes, I had my completely ill-informed idea of the size of the park. But also because woods just weren’t scary to me then. I was in the woods a lot growing up. It was an entirely familiar experience for me, and being scared wouldn’t have occurred to me.


Thinking about my sister and her friends’ calmness when we were lost and about my own childhood ease with being in the woods reminds me of being maybe seven or eight and off at summer camp, hiking to John’s Brook. There were two counselors with our gang of kids as there always were on trips. In our eyes, they were adults, but they could easily have been only 18 or 19 years old.

During our hike out to the water, we came to a cleared space that was full of men with motorcycles. I remember being very excited by all the bikes, as were my friends — perhaps this is where my desire to have a Harley was born? — and I remember that the men were kind of … not warm-and-fuzzy looking. With their sleeveless leather vests, their tattooed arms, their ZZ Top beards, their long hair and sunglasses, they were like a caricature of a motorcycle gang. I mean, they were a gang, but when I think about them now, I think how “out of central casting” they were.

I wonder what our counselors — two young women alone in the woods with a bunch of kids — were thinking during those moments we spent with those men. Some of us kids asked to sit on the bikes and were lifted up and plopped down in the big saddles. We were having a great time. What terrors could have been in the minds of our chaperones? And, even once we continued on our hike, would those terrors have subsided? We were on our way to stay overnight in a lean-to by the water. Were the counselors freaking out all night, sitting watch over our oblivious heads?

The woods, y’all. You never know what’s going to happen out there!

¹ Okay, so I looked it up so I could insert that link and a) it’s still there, thank goodness! b) it’s so much bigger than I’d ever realized, c) it’s not quite as trees-only as it is in my memory, and d) it’s just as beautiful as ever.

² Yes, I could have seen a picture somewhere, but it’s much more likely that I knew about beekeeping because of Mildred, my biology teacher/summer camp nature counselor aunt. Mildred was absolutely someone who would have talked about beekeeping and shown me how manmade hives work.

It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Fleshing Out the Five: Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Some more oversharing! I’m still working my way through the five random facts about me that I shared in my Counting to Five post. The second item on the list was the fact that I don’t have a driver’s license.

I am most assuredly not the only adult in the America without a license, and yet people are always shocked when they discover that I don’t drive.

I learned to drive in high school, the way most people do. My parents taught me, and I took driver’s ed. My parents were both good drivers — unflappable, good parallel parkers, at home with speed — and learning from them meant I took on some of those qualities, too. I was pretty comfortable driving … too comfortable, as it turned out. When I took my road test, I was a little too casual about a stop sign. As soon as I slid past it with the barest of pauses, the examiner told me I’d failed. “You’re a good driver,” she said, but you need to follow the rules.”

Not getting my license didn’t mean I didn’t drive, however. I knew how, and I knew I was good at it, so I drove when I had to. I took a friend’s keys and drove us home when he got ridiculously drunk at a party he’d invited me to. Drove a carload of us home in the wee small hours of a foggy spring night from somewhere in southern New Jersey after we’d played groupies and driven down to DC to follow a band we were all crushing on. I drove when I needed to. And certainly that wasn’t smart, but it also turned out okay. I’m not such a risk taker today, however. For all kinds of reasons.

I was annoyed to have failed my road test, but it didn’t make much of a difference in my high school life. There wasn’t any chance I was going to get a car. My parents couldn’t have afforded to give me one, and my babysitter pay wasn’t enough to get that job done, either. I could have retested, and I probably planned to do just that. Somehow that never, happened, however. There have been times I’ve regretted not being a legal driver — when my desire to have a motorcycle or learn to drive an 18-wheeler rears its head — but mostly I’m okay, and I’ve been fine relying on mass transit and the kindness of friends with cars and strangers willing to stop for a hitch hiker.¹

I’ve had a permit two times in my adult life, but I’ve never gotten serious about working up to take the test. I got the first permit in my late 20s so I could share the driving the summer some friends and I rented a house in the Hamptons. That was fun, as the car I got to drive was a Chevy Malibu convertible from the 70s! I got the second permit in my late 30s to have as an ID so I could stop carrying my passport around. I’m in my late 50s now (whoa! … that’s the first time I’ve said that!), and I haven’t had a permit in 20 years!

I’ve started thinking about getting a license. There are places I’d like to go (and places I’d like to live after I retire) where having/driving a car would be not only helpful but necessary. Some of the writing residencies I fantasize about applying to are pretty remote, and I’d have to get myself to and from.

So maybe, 40 years after driver’s ed, it’s time to take this driving thing a little more seriously!

¹ Stay calm, my hitching days are long behind me, and I’m right here telling you this story, so you know I survived. It’s all good!

It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Pandemic A-Go-Go

You know, or something.

I’m not really trying to be flip about what’s happening with this virus. I’m just … at a loss for what all to say. My state’s governor announced today that the education programs I oversee are all ceasing in-person services for the rest of the semester. We have a week to come up with a contingency plan before online programming is set to begin.

We need more than a week.

I think the decision to go online is a good one. I think it’s the right decision. It just isn’t that easy for programs like mine, and certainly isn’t anything like easy for the people we serve.

We’re rallying. I mean, of course we are. How not? Our students are everything, and we need to make sure they are supported through this strange time. And also, this is what we do, right? We figure shit out and make plans and carry on. It’s what we’re all doing everywhere, right? Because our lives have to go on, and our communities have to come through this, and so we do what we have to do.

And then I stopped at my grocery store on the way home. I wanted some fancy cheese and some French bread and some fruit. In and out. Easy, right? How did it not occur to me that — between the WHO announcement and the governor shutting schools down all over the state — people would be panic-shopping and losing their minds all through the aisles?

I am silly this way. Entirely.

I can’t really be this oblivious, and yet … I wasn’t prepared. Wasn’t prepared for the serious soul-searching in the produce aisle, a couple debating whether they should risk fresh fruits and vegetables because someone who handled the food might have been “A CARRIER.” Wasn’t prepared for the woman taking every case of bottled water on the shelves and setting her small child atop the pile in her cart to keep other shoppers from trying to swipe a case. Wasn’t prepared for the man who tried to convince people to let him cut the (very long) check out line by giving us dramatic stage-coughs and saying, “I got the asthma! I can’t be around all these people! Let me get home!”

I wasn’t prepared.

I’m home now. I got my snacks. I’ve sent a zillion emails to staff to get our planning under way. I’ve emailed my family so they won’t worry about me, all alone up here in the sickly north.

So, here we go, friends. Here we go.

Sending love and well wishes to you and yours and hoping we all come through this intact, stronger for our struggles, and ready for the next challenge!

It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Let’s Go Living in the Past

I just discovered CNN’s podcast, Lectures in History. I was setting up to do some cooking last weekend and thought how I didn’t want to listen to music or a book. And then I thought, “I want to listen to someone talking about history.” And I was so bent on finding that for myself, I didn’t even spare any time to fall on the floor laughing at that entirely hilarious thought. Who says that to themselves? Well, apparently, I do.

And so. I searched for “history lectures” and found a lot of annoying minute-long clips from lectures. Definitely not what I had in mind. And then I found Lectures.

I’ve listened to a few lectures so far. And I’ll for-sure listen to more. I’m still amused by my sudden and burning desire to hear “someone talking about history,” but I’m glad it led me to this podcast. In truth, this desire isn’t surprising. I already subscribe to The History Chicks and Stuff You Missed in History Class and a few others that could be considered history podcasts. And much of the nonfiction I read is about history. I’m still amused by myself.

Maybe that amusement stems from the fact that I specifically went looking for lectures. The podcasts I listen to are definitely not lectures. There are, for one thing, usually a pair of hosts talking about the subject or interviewing some expert. Just sitting and listening to a professor go on and on about a thing? Not usually my sweet spot.

As a kid, I wasn’t much of a history fan – or, to be most precise, I didn’t enjoy the history I was made to study in school. It was uniformly dry and boring and had nothing to do with my life. The history I was introduced to at home – through comics about famous Black folks and stories from The Negro Almanac – was far more interesting.

I took some history classes in college … and they continued the dry-and-boring motif. I mean, Renaissance and Reformation England? Seriously? And there was a course on ancient Greece that was interesting because the professors who taught it argued with and contradicted each other all the time, but the subject fell flat for me. And European intellectual history? Um, no. Why didn’t anyone smack me, give me a good shake and tell me to study something I actually found interesting?

I discovered that I enjoyed reading and studying history when I became and adult education teacher. The bits of history covered on the GED exam frustrated me – a lot of out-of-context information that didn’t invite digging in and learning anything. So I started digging in with my students. We read Howard Zinn’s People’s History to start, and that opened plenty of new doors, plenty of new things to investigate.

And I realized I actually loved history … when I got to take it on my own terms, when I was studying things that had clear connection to my life, when I went beneath the surface and had the chance to look at the inner workings of systems and the deeper causes for the surface manifestations we had seemed to focus on in school.

My students routinely tired of my intensive digging, of the ten thousand Aha! moments we’d have in the course of a particular unit. I don’t blame them. I’m pretty obsessive when I get into something. I learned how not to overload my beleaguered students, but my own digging continued.

As I said earlier, much of my nonfiction reading is history. I love history written well, written as if it’s fully alive and on the gallop. Books like The Boys in the Boat and When the Garden Was Eden. The first is about the gold medal-winning men’s crew team from the 1936 Olympics, and the second is about my heartbreak team, the New York Knicks, back when they one their championships in the 70s. And yes, there is a theme there. I love good sports writing. Love. It. I’m no one version of a sports fan as much as I have my teams and my faves. But good sports journalism wins me every time.

And then there’s Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet. Other loves: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, The Songlines, Life and Death in Shanghai, White Rage, and The Warmth of Other Suns. So I’m pretty steeped in history on a regular basis. Sometimes, even when the history is terrible, it’s a good break from present-day terrible. Sometimes – as was the case with both White Rage and Warmth – what I read introduces me to myself, to my family, shining a light on something I hadn’t found a way to see before stumbling across that reading. Both of those books showed me my parents in various ways, showed me things I thought I knew and realized I had only focused on the smallest piece of the story and not a fuller telling. Both sets of revelations hit me like a wrecking ball. Both made me grateful.

I’ve been discovering great stuff as I’ve listened to these lectures. More things for me to dig further into and look at more closely. The first lecture was about enslaved people suing for their freedom. It centered on a particular family, but covered other ground, too. This has been my favorite so far. Next was a talk about Feminism and popular music from the 60s and 70s. And then I took a bit of a misstep and listened to a lecture 50s and 60s counterculture. The professor was a little too charmed by his cleverness, which I always find irksome. And, too, at that point I’d started to wonder if any of the lectures would be by women as all three of my choices had me listening to men (I checked the show notes then and yes, there are women, but men definitely get the lion’s share of episodes. Feh.)

Okay, enough time has passed since I started writing this essay (two days) that I’ve listened to a couple more lectures, including the first I’ve heard by a woman. I’ll keep listening, but my pace is going to slow down. Bingeing these lectures hasn’t been all that nice. Half of them confirm for me that we’ve been ugly for a good long time – as a people, as a country, as a civilization. Our history has bright spots but the broadest strokes tell stories of oppression, violence, and evil. Also, I do miss the back and forth I get on the other podcasts.

The biggest reason I need to slow down in this consumption is that – in the instances where professors elicit responses from their students – the students often say really problematic, wrongheaded things … and the professors mostly let those comments pass. Rather than push students not to be lazy thinkers and fall back on tropes and racial biases, they either affirm the nonsense (!!) or gloss over it with responses that imply the students’ comments are at least partially correct and then they move on to pull answers from other students.

Obviously, I never want professors to respond the way I did when I heard some of the students’ questions and comments – saying aloud, “You’re an idiot,” or “Thank you for your racism.” Not that, but I expect professors to make their students see that they have to do the work, have to examine ideas, not just relax in the comfort of what this society has spoon-fed them. Ugh.

I’m sure there will be other lectures that don’t trigger this particular disgust or annoyance. I’m also sure that, even with the moments of disgust and annoyance, I’ll keep working my way through the back catalog of episodes. Because yes, I am a “historophile,” not a history buff, not hardly, but a lover. And Lectures in History feeds my habit.

We’ll go walking out
While other’s shout of war’s disaster.
Oh, we won’t give in,
Let’s go living in the past.

It’s always nice to slip a little Jethro Tull into the conversation. The lyric isn’t exactly accurate for my feelings about discovering this trove of history fabulousness, but I like it all the same.

Oh, we won’t give in,
Let’s go living in the past.

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Still on the Line …

I’ve always loved the song, “Wichita Lineman” (which will confirm for a friend who recently noted it, the fact of my unpredictable music tastes). I just read a fabulous LitHub piece about two lines of this song. I had no idea that other people were crazy for “Wichita Lineman,” no idea that some people think those two lines are the greatest lyrics ever. It’s a surprise discovery and a funny kind of validation.

I do love the couplet the LitHub essay focuses on, but I love the earlier couplet, too: “I hear you singing in the wires. / I can hear you through the whine.” And I love it because it’s so … “everyday.” When I listen to “Wichita Lineman” now, I’m always struck by its humanness, the totally ordinary and relatable stream of consciousness of it. This guy is out doing his job, thinking about how tired he is and the work that needs to be finished before the snow comes … and woven into his day-to-day thoughts are his thoughts about the person he loves and how much he loves them. It’s so ordinary and, therein, beautiful.

Part of the magic of this song that makes it as gorgeous to me today as when I first heard it as a kid is, of course, Glen Campbell’s voice. I love him singing this song. Everything about his voice and style is perfect on this song, right down to his choice to sing “linemun,” instead of “linemin,” which would have been tinny and distracting, or (god forbid) “lineman,” which would have killed the thing entirely.

But the heart of the magic is Jimmy Webb. His songs really just stay with you. Not just “Wichita Lineman,” but “Girl’s Song,” and “The Worst that Could Happen” (The Fifth Dimension), “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston” (both also by Glen Campbell), and “MacArthur Park,” and “Didn’t We” (Richard Harris). And, according to the LitHub piece, he was only 21 when he wrote “Wichita Lineman,” and that amazes me. Not that 21-year-olds can’t be deep and have powerful feelings or what have you. Of course they can. But a young person writing these songs is still pretty shocking. All of these songs became hits in the late 60s — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was originally recorded in 1965 — so Webb was writing these things when he was in high school. That’s pretty unfathomable. (And makes me look at my own clearly-lazypants work ethic.) These Webb songs sound too old for and 18- to 22-year-old, sound as if he wrote them while channeling the experience of one of his past incarnations, a love-lorn man of a certain age.

I like all of these songs, but something about “Wichita Lineman” is extra especially magical. It never fails to win me, to pull me in. It’s an earworm I welcome because I enjoy finding myself randomly humming or singing its lines. And that repeated phrase — “and the Wichita lineman is still on the line” — says so much. He’s still there, still holding on, still waiting for his lover, still keeping the line open. He’s ready and willing.

I want to know the Wichita lineman, but more importantly and despite the fact that I’ve never done that job or any job even vaguely similar to that job, I am the Wichita lineman. I’m the person going about the regular day-to-day of her job who is caught up short by the memory of the sound of The Morphine Man’s voice, AC’s lopsided half-smile, the sexy text from the boy who dumped me last month. These things filter in as I’m typing up work plans for the new fiscal year, as I’m packing to go out of town, as I’m getting my groceries. I hear them singing in the wires. I can hear them through the whine … I don’t need them more than want them, and I certainly won’t want them for all time (well, maybe The Morphine Man), but they stay with me all the same. 

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.