Saturday, December 28, 2013

Memories


"The life given us, by nature is short; but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal."
- Cicero


What is the purpose of our memories? Do they give significance to our lives, make real the things of our past? Aren’t we comforted to be told that a person, now gone, will continue to have life through our memories of them? What happens when those memories fade? Does it mean the experience loses its significance somehow? As if it never happened at all?



The three years between 28 and 31 years old were the richest and most satisfying of my life. These were my single years between leaving Todd and meeting Mari. They were some of my busiest years as well. I worked full time, went to college, and was raising my son. Through my job I felt both challenged and able to be of service to people in need. I hiked nearly every weekend that my son was at his dad’s. I had a rich spiritual life that included ritual and connection to the turning of the seasons and the natural world. I had a wonderful circle of friends and a very active social life. And I had not one, but two best friends.

Actually that last part was not always a good thing.



Lilly and I just “clicked.” We had friendship chemistry from our very first interaction, signing up to do some volunteer work. Lilly and I had many significant differences in how we lived our lives and viewed the world. She was strong, opinionated and outspoken, traits I admired as much as I lacked them myself. She was outrageous, flirtatious, gorgeous, and silly. She thought farts were hilarious, kept dog biscuits in her pockets just in case she encountered a dog who needed a new friend, was unapologetic about her cross-spectrum political views, and her dark eyes would flash as she belted out the words to “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine.

We had fun no matter what we were doing together. Spending time with her was always the best of times. One Christmastime we went to a dime store and bought doll heads which we adorned with feathers, sequins, and limbs that we attached to their ears and forehead; we had a grand old time. She always saw the humor in things, and had an infectious laugh. I’d never met anyone who thought the way she did. She was delightful!

Gloria was the best friend I would have gotten if I’d written up my wish list for one. She and I were in sync on so many things: our political and social views, our impatience and anger towards civil injustices. She was beautiful and completely comfortable in her own skin. She could assert herself loudly, or just as easily be coy and alluring. We had invigorating discussions about this country and the things that would make it better. I felt like she and I were exactly in step with where we were in our lives and our feelings about the world around us.

But there is an unwritten rule that we are only supposed to have one best friend at a time. That’s simply how it works. I felt guilty, having two best friends. I’d never had that happen before. You aren’t supposed to have two best friends; it’s like having two lovers. I didn’t ask for these two amazing women to come into my life at the same time. I would have been fine if they’d shown up at different times.



Gloria and Lilly didn’t care for each other. There were in fact extraordinarily different from one another. And both being outspoken, they didn’t conceal their dislike. I had a tradition in those days of gathering lots of friends together for a slumber party, celebration of the solstice or equinox, or for help redecorating my tiny apartment. The gatherings would often last all weekend and could include just a few people or over a dozen. Lilly and Gloria would contradict each other loudly, disagreeing and being dismissive of the other; it often seemed that whatever one said, the other would disagree as a matter of principle.


To celebrate turning 30 I had a weekend-long slumber party with a few friends including Lilly and Gloria. We all trekked into San Francisco for the day to get my nose pierced in The Castro, then returned to my apartment.  We spread out mats on the floor and lined them up for sleeping. Lilly announced firmly that her mat was the one next to mine. I remember we held hands. I pretended she was my girlfriend.

When the weekend ended and Lilly headed home a hundred miles away, I felt my heart rip. Because she was going home to her husband. And she was not mine. And because I had fallen in love with her.

The next day back at her home, her husband came home from work to find Lilly unconscious on the bathroom floor. In the emergency room she was diagnosed with sepsis, and when her brain swelled they also discovered an aneurysm. I don’t remember how long she was in the hospital; I was not allowed to visit her, and because she already had her significant other by her side I felt I couldn't insist. Was she there only days, a week, two weeks? Days of expecting the worst; not one brain surgery but two; and finally, blessedly, Lilly was out of danger and sent home.

Lilly doesn’t remember the days leading up to her aneurysm, the days when I pretended she was my girlfriend, the days when I fell in love with her. Her memory of that entire time period is hazy. I’ve brought up her rivalry with Gloria, and she doesn’t remember any of that; in fact she doesn’t remember Gloria at all. I understand that it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean that those events weren’t important to her. It doesn’t mean she didn’t love me, or that our friendship didn’t mean as much to her as it had to me. There is a medical reason for Lillys memory loss. But it still hurts that such meaningful memories between the two of us aren’t shared; they are mine to carry alone.



Gloria pulled away from our friendship not long after that. She did so without discussion or drama, just longer and longer pauses between returning my calls, until her return calls did not come at all anymore.

Gloria and I were out of touch for many years until the Internet afforded me the opportunity to find her and reconnect. I recently showed her a photo of the two of us at a political event we attended together. She emailed to apologize that she didn’t remember at all. It turns out she has lost a lot of memories from that time and she isn’t sure why, perhaps because of drug and alcohol abuse in her early adulthood. A deep sadness gripped me at her news. I felt alone and abandoned, hurt that our friendship wasn’t the beacon still burning in her heart that is was mine. One of my closest friendships, with the woman I felt had been made to be my best friend; and again I am carrying these memories alone.



What does it mean, that these two women whom I shared such significant memories with from the happiest time in my life don’t remember?

Is this how people whose loved ones suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s feel? Do they too struggle with doubt once they can no longer talk about shared memories? The loved ones’ lost memories are medical symptoms, so there should be no judgment or feeling of personal hurt. Neither Lilly nor Gloria is to blame for not remembering; there is nothing to suggest that they chose not to remember the importance of our friendships.

But it still hurts. And there is this new doubt. Were our friendships as strong as I remembered? Was I as important to them as they were to me? Did they love me as much as I loved them?

Even today I sorely miss that time in my life, the strength, vibrancy and delight of those two friendships. The friendships as they existed then are long gone. It was a finite time in our lives. But I had imagined that Lilly and Gloria also cherished and carried along those memories, even if we weren’t still in that place.

Instead, I am carrying the memories of the most enriching time of my life, and the time I walked in step with two amazing people, alone. I will continue to carry these memories. Because my time with these friends was well spent; the memories of our friendships easily worth remembering. I will carry those memories alone, because I do not want to forget.





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Thursday, December 26, 2013

RANGERING: September 2004 (3)


Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.


On a day Ranger Eva wasn’t working, Ranger Joseph asked me to mow the lawn at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. I loaded the mower, weed eater, and extra fuel into the back of a pickup and drove up to the interpretive center. It was a glorious, clear sunny day.

Looking out at the North Jetty, and the ocean beyond.
I got all of my equipment assembled and wheeled the mower out to the grassy area between the building and the fencing that kept people from plunging over the edge of a cliff into the ocean below. The view was unbelievable. I could see the north jetty, a structure of gigantic rocks stretching out into the ocean and built in the early 1900’s by the Army Corps of Engineers. The north jetty is a smaller version mirroring the south jetty built years earlier, together flanking the mouth of the Columbia River in order to create a deep enough channel for ships to safely cross the dangerous river bar. Below me was Waikiki Beach. The ocean stretched to the horizon. A cool breeze was the perfect refreshment as I heaved and pushed the mower up and down the sloping lawn.

After I’d been there for a couple hours Joseph came by. I turned off the mower and grabbed my water bottle.

In his high pitched, chipper voice he said, “I know the work is lousy here. Having to look at this terrible view while you earn money.”  He looked at me expectantly, and I laughed. Joseph was tall and slender, fair-skinned with close-cropped red haired, and very pretty. He loved to talk and joke, and loved attention even more. And if his jokes didn’t provoke laughter, he tended to repeat them.



I arranged to go on a ride-along with Steve one evening at the end of my shift. The night rangers typically worked an additional two to three hours beyond the end of my shift. It was a blustery night. Steve wasn’t a large man, but had the physique of a man who worked out a lot. His uniform was always drawn tight across his chest, which always preceded him when he walked – as if he were sprinting towards the finish line and hoped his chest would arrive first. Steve spoke articulately and confidently; he loved to debate, and he debated to win. We started by printing out a campground log of everyone registered in the campground, then systematically drove through the park. Sometimes Steve would have me read off the license plates listed under a particular site number. We came alongside a site that had four vehicles in it; the log listed just one. Steve and I got out of the truck and walked to the campsite where a group of folks were sitting around a campfire, partly sheltered from the rain by overhanging trees.

In a friendly voice he said, “Good evening, I’m Ranger Steve. The reason I’m here is because it looks like you have several vehicles here that are not registered. Is there any reason you haven’t done that yet?”

Several people answered at once, expressing confusion about what they were supposed to do.

Steve explained that if the vehicles were staying overnight, they were required to register at the welcome station within half an hour of arrival. He told them that the welcome station was closed for the evening, so they would need to pay first thing in the morning. Under tree cover, he filled out three Attention Notices, tore off the top sheets, and handed them over.

We got back in the truck and Steve said, “People always pretend they didn’t understand the rules. But if you treat them respectfully and give them an opportunity to do the right thing, most of them will. And if they don’t, I have copies of these notices to keep track of who paid.”

I asked, “Do you follow up if they don’t pay?”

“We leave these copies at the welcome station; whichever person is registering campers tosses them as they’re paid. If they still haven’t paid by my next shift, I’ll go back to their site and have another talk with them; less friendly the second time.”

“What if they leave the park without paying?  Do you do anything?”

“Not really. I suppose we could write them a ticket and send it in the mail. But if we don’t know for certain who the person is, then a ticket isn’t likely to stick. And you want to make sure you write good tickets – ones that would hold up in court.”

While circling the campground making sure everyone had paid up, we dropped off orange traffic cones at the few empty campsites with incoming reservations. We closed and locked gates at some of the day use areas; one side of the entrance gate to the campground was closed to give the message that the campground was closed, yet still allowing vehicles to come and go. Steve explained that this was required in case of emergencies. I continued asking him questions about the mechanics of the ranger job, and how he chose to solve problems with campers. I was particularly interested in his use of “verbals,” something rangers receive training on. The edict from State Parks is that rangers should first try to gain voluntary rule compliance. Only if that is unsuccessful do they progress to enforcing rule compliance with a stronger approach.

“How do you know what to enforce?  I mean, park rules take up pages and pages of text. How do you know which ones to focus on, what’s important?”

“Well, each park is a bit different. Really, you learn by working at the park, asking questions, working with other rangers. A lot of this you learn in academy.”

“So what was academy like for you?”

“I don’t know what the one here is like. I was a ranger in Ohio before coming to Washington and went through academy there. So I didn’t have to go through any of that here, just a willingness to start at the bottom rung. People have asked me, ‘What’re you doing here with your Master’s Degree?  You could be doing so much more.’  But this is what I love doing. And I won’t stay on the bottom rung forever.”

Yup, Steve had an abundance of self-confidence.

The couple hours I spent with Steve were extremely interesting and useful, and I thanked him before heading home at the end of a very long day.

As I drove the winding road from the park to the town of Ilwaco, the rain poured down. My headlights caught movement on the pavement – little things moving in all directions. I realized I was seeing little frogs hopping from one side of the street to the other. I unrolled my window a crack, and heard them croaking their little lungs out. There were thousands of them, impossible to dodge. They were delightful to watch hopping all over, but I knew my tires left a path of death behind me.



I did not feel that I had the same job as the other park aides. Most of them are in their teens or early twenties, and many of them seem more interested in looking like they are working, rather than actually working. I developed a good routine for cleaning the restrooms. My standard cleaning includes a comprehensive disinfecting of all contact surfaces. And every shift I focus on something extra: spider webs in the corners, or grime buildup on the window sills, or the undersides of the sinks and toilets. After returning from my days off I always notice a buildup of scum and often find bits of litter pushed into corners and not swept up. It is hard some days to not be frustrated with the other park aides. I frequently remind myself that I am being paid to work for eight hours a day – regardless of what the other aides are doing or not doing. I also remind myself often that I am motivated by a desire to learn as much as possible about the park while trying to become a ranger, while for the other aides it is simply a way to make some money during summer break. Different jobs altogether.



I took our Grasshopper tractor lawn mower out one afternoon to trim the grass along the side of the campground road. This mower was steered not by a wheel, but by two levers. Pushing both forward propelled the mower straight ahead; one pushed forward and one pulled backwards prompted the mower to turn; bringing them both to a “home” position led to inertia. Along the side of the road the pavement ends abruptly, and there is just a sliver of grass before it falls away into a wet, marshy ditch. As I was driving along straddling the pavement, with the right side of the mower trimming the sliver of grass, I was sure that I was being more cautious than previous park aides, making sure I didn’t get too close to the ditch. The edge became too soft and the sliver of grass too narrow, so I pulled the lever to steer the right wheels back onto the pavement. The front wheel got stuck in the soft dirt and would not come up onto the pavement; I pulled the lever harder. The back wheel dug in, then both back wheels started a slow and persistent journey backwards, downwards, pulling the whole tractor into the ditch. Still seated and pitched at 45°, I attempted to drive the tractor out of the ditch. The wheels just spun. I cut the power and pulled out my park radio.

“26 to Base.”

“Base, go ahead.”

“I drove the Grasshopper into the ditch.” 

Joseph offered to bring out the tractor and pull it out. Then Don, one of our maintenance guys, got on the radio. “I just fixed those mower blades. I don’t want them bent and mangled as they come onto the pavement. I’m going to call a tow company that has a winch attached to a crane. They can pull the tractor straight up, and then back onto the pavement. Can you stay there with it until they arrive?”

I answered, “26” to convey my understanding. Great. As people drove by gaping, I got to stand there next to my shame. Some guys driving by in a full size pickup stopped. “We’ve got cables in here, we can drag you out of there.”

“Thanks, but no. I’ve been told to wait until we get a tow truck with a crane and winch.”

The guys seemed puzzled.

“So the blades don’t scrape on the edge of the pavement.”

“All right, your choice,” and off they went.

A good twenty minutes passed when both the tow truck and Don arrived. It was pretty impressive to see the large mower pulled more up than to the side, and then set gently on the pavement. While it was suspended, Steve looked on the underside for damage.

“You should be able to drive it back to the shop. I’ll take a better look at it there.”

So again I took my seat and powered it up. My drive of shame back to the shop seemed particularly slow, but I maneuvered the mower into the shop without further incident.

“Base, 26.”  It was Ralph, the park manager.

“26.”

“I heard you tried to mow the marsh.”

I sighed. “Right.”

“Didn’t anyone tell you the marsh doesn’t need to be mowed?  It stays natural.”

“Apparently not.”

“I think I’ll call you Weedhopper from now on. Base out.”

“26.”



After hosing off the accessible parts of the mower, I walked over to the welcome station. Two of the “office aides” were there: park aides who worked exclusively in the welcome station, not outside cleaning restrooms and doing grounds maintenance. Janelle was singing something, seemingly to the other young woman. Her belly peeked out from beneath her shirt as she danced up to the other aide in a provocative move. I liked Janelle. She had been in my position until she broke her foot. The rangers transferred her into the welcome station, and that’s when my position opened up so late in the season. Janelle was friendly, with the wide-eyed curiosity of a 17-year-old. She seemed to get along with everyone, regardless of age or position. I navigated my way around the young women to the back office, to put my radio in a charger and get a fresh one.

Ralph saw me. “Hey, there’s my Weedhopper!  Been trying to mow any swamps lately?”

“No, I got it pretty well mowed the first time.”

I reflected that it took my accident to come onto Ralph’s radar screen. Previously he had been friendly enough, but didn’t particularly notice me. This was a change, and the laugher in his eyes suggested it was a good change.



That evening at twilight I was driving down the campground road to the office. On one long and straight stretch, alders line both sides of the road. The lighting was hazy, and the road was empty except for me. As I drove, leaves started to drift and swirl down towards the ground in slow motion. It seemed as if time itself slowed and was suspended as I was caught in this magical world of slowly swirling leaves.








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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Authentic

Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share with the hope that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.


I realized a couple years ago that feeling self-righteous indignation is a breath away from identifying as the victim. For me being self-righteous is about feeling I’m being wronged, misunderstood, mistreated. It is not an empowered position, because it stems from a belief that the other person’s opinions or actions are what is most important; I have given them power over me. And in giving them power over me, I am agreeing that I am the victim.

Of course we don’t live in a utopian society, and there are people who truly control, subjugate, and abuse others; they victimize others. And the victims may have no clear avenues out of that victimization. This is not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the times things aren’t going my way and I fall into a familiar role of being angry, defensive and indignant about what they are doing to me. I’ve given my power away. A more powerful position would be to find strength and sureness within myself and hold fast, despite my detractors and outside activities. This does not mean I will suddenly get my way. Sometimes I will, sometimes I still will not. But I stop a pattern of behavior and regardless of how it turns out, I maintain my power.

I was talking with my therapist about this feeling that my heart is opening. I do not feel like this means I walk around with my heart on my sleeve, opening up to everyone in every situation, expressing every thought and feeling that comes up. I decided that what I really mean is that I am living more authentically. With the people who are important in my life, I strive to be more vulnerable with them: share more of myself, give away my love freely, and offer my unconditional support and love to them.

Being authentic means that I assess every situation on its own, and no doubt many times I will not choose to be vulnerable. I have an acquaintance who does not seem tuned in to others’ moods. She will routinely over-share about her life struggles without assessing if she has the right audience or the right time, yet will interrupt another who is sharing about a personal struggle. When Simone was diagnosed with cancer I cried every day – regardless of where I was. But I was very selective in choosing those with whom I shared the news of her sickness and ultimate death. And this acquaintance did not make that list. I had examples from past interactions that led me to believe that she would use my news as an opportunity to over-share about her past unresolved traumas, and I didn’t have the emotional capacity to listen to that. By making the choice to withhold from her, I was being authentic. I was fully present, and I determined that being honest and vulnerable with her would likely be hurtful to me.


I have a short list of things that can completely consume me, and in which I lose myself for a while. Gun violence is one of them.

(I was never involved in gun violence, however during my years with parks there were numerous law enforcement officers in Washington and Oregon who were shot; some were killed. How those tragedies played out while I was enduring my own struggles lodged them firmly in the part of my brain that is traumatized. For the past few years, any time there has been a new episode of gun violence or any accident involving substantial loss of life, I have become consumed by it: I could expect my evenings and weekend to be spent on the couch desperately seeking updates and crying, crying. I have become so overwhelmed by my feelings that I am unable to partake in my life. It has taken intensive therapy and retraining to learn that at the first hint of a new tragedy I must turn off the news source and refocus my attention; often I will need to completely avoid the news and social media for a few days; and I need to tune into my body in case it starts displaying signs of panic and overwhelm.)

Until recently I have felt powerless to stop others when they launch into retelling tragedies; combined with my likely reactions (above), the mere prospect of being held hostage to someone else's recounting of a tragedy has filled me with anxiety and dread. Recently there was another school shooting. On this day as the news was breaking, this same acquaintance started reading the news aloud from her smart phone. Typically I would attempt (unsuccessfully) to tune her out, numb out (dissociate), or if possible leave. For the first time, I reacted differently: I told her, “please don’t talk about that right now.” She stopped, but within the span of ten minutes she launched into the story two more times, and each time I again asked her to stop – each time more adamantly. And she did.

I have a theory that others’ compulsion to share horrific stories is a result of their own unresolved traumas. I also believe that is what’s behind people insensitively sharing their own past tragic stories when someone else is clearly in current emotional pain.

But the point is, I was authentic. I did not shut down; I did not go away either physically or mentally. I did not censor myself, putting my concern for her reaction before my own need. I spoke my need. I spoke it clearly and strongly, neither apologetically nor rudely. I was able to react to what was really happening in the moment, and do what I needed to do to take care of myself. Being authentic does not mean that I am willing to be vulnerable with anyone, at any time.



The question of “what does it mean to live authentically” has come up around writing this blog. I share from the heart, and through my writing I am completely authentic and vulnerable; I have found that immensely healing (and I thank you all for being on the other end of my sharing). But what about the times my story has intersected with others’ stories? I could insist that I have the right to share my story, and that in order to be authentic I should share everything.

But a thought keeps surfacing: a desire to do no harm. If I write about times others’ stories have intersected with mine, sharing their personal information, that may have an impact on them. Parks is a very small, tight-knit community; additionally many of the individual parks reside within very small communities. If I were to share personal information about people I worked with, it is likely that despite changing names and small details others would know who I was writing about. If I’m writing about people I care about, even if I’m sharing only fond memories, I risk exposing their vulnerabilities. In other cases some peoples’ actions dramatically and negatively impacted me and my experiences as a ranger. But even in these cases, I cannot proceed without care for exposing them. Even though I state in my disclaimer that the truth is never absolute, I write in a way that I hope will be compelling – and telling my truth could negatively impact those I write about. But if I accept that the truth is never absolute, I have to accept that my interpretation of things that happened may be enormously skewed by my prior experiences. How do I know that my truth of what someone else did is really what they did at all? But there is another reason to not proceed with sharing personal or harmful information about others…

I have to be brutally honest with myself. My motivation for sharing about the horrible things that others have done to me is a quest for validation. I want all of you to read about the horrible things people have done to me, realize that I was wronged, and join me in feeling indignant and outraged.

Sound familiar?

I want your support in acknowledging that I have been a victim. And if I am seeking your validation, then I am still clearly giving away my power.

So yet again, in yet another surprising way, writing this blog is helping me to heal. By investigating my emotions and motivations around sharing aspects of my story, I have unearthed deeper beliefs that I am a victim. And in choosing not to play the victim anymore, I choose not to share that story.

How does this translate to writing my blog, particularly the RANGERING portion where I go back through my experience of becoming a park ranger? It means that I will focus primarily on the experience of being a park ranger, and not as much on the things going on in my personal life. It means that I will leave out chunks of my story and trust that there will still be value in what I share (I believe there will be!). It means that I will need to be even more creative in how I retell my story, to find ways to share my struggles without putting a spotlight on a real person. This, I believe, is known as “artistic license.” And I will be utilizing it wholeheartedly.

I want to deliver an authentic story, but I will not do so at others’ expense. And regardless of the ways that I spin, stretch, and twist the truth, I promise to share an authentic portrayal of the feelings, struggles, and achievements of my journey; plus I will be authentic in honoring my desire to do no harm.


This is being authentic.



Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Friday, December 20, 2013

RANGERING: September 2004 (2)


Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.


The restrooms provided daily horrors of things that I had never even imagined before. I started collecting my own “poop stories” which I would share with other park staff, all of whom had their own collection of stories. On every shift I had at least one toilet that needed to be plunged. It was amazing to me how people would continue using a toilet even after it started filling up with paper and bodily waste. Cleaning feces off toilets, walls and floors was common. One day I came in early to work a morning shift, and as I entered a men’s restroom (after knocking and yelling to make sure it was empty) directly in front of me I saw the urinal, and in it a pile of poop. Right there in the urinal. I suppose someone might not understand what a urinal was, or the difference between a urinal and a toilet. But what was horrifying to imagine was someone coming into the restroom, squatting over the urinal and facing the door to the restroom with absolutely no visual barrier between them and anyone entering, long enough to squeeze it out. Were they crouched and trying to hurry, worried someone would come in and see them?  Or perhaps they were too drunk or barely awake to even notice the unusual “stall” without a door. But in the same way that you become immune to having your baby throw up on you, I quickly became accustomed to the disgusting smells and visuals. The more disgusting, the more gleefully I would recount the horrors to my coworkers.

Waikiki Beach
In some of the restrooms, particularly the one at Waikiki Beach, bright little green frogs would find their way into the moist showers. I would shake off my gloves and carry them out to the grass. Sometimes they had been stepped on in the showers and were beyond saving.

I started bringing more and more food with me: stuffing my pockets with protein bars, filling plastic containers with nuts and dried fruit that I could pour into my mouth without having to stop and wash my restroom-dirty hands, and carrying an extra-large Nalgene water bottle. I ate non-stop throughout my shift. I used a butt-pack that I’d first purchased many years ago, en route to France. It had served me well on my layover in Philadelphia, and through the cities and countryside of France. It had side pouches; on one side I put a water bottle, and on the other my park radio. The inside was filled with extra rubber gloves, ear plugs, pliers, and assorted tools of the job.

Ancient Seastack
I went about my duties using a small pickup truck to get around the large park. For the first several weeks I ended my workday in complete darkness. I would emerge from a restroom and gaze up at the twinkling stars in the velvet black sky. The north end of the campground provides the more secluded campsites and was my favorite. Fewer RVs were here, and the rustic sites attracted the more earthy tent campers. Here there are ancient sea stacks and caves that used to be covered by ocean, and that glow deep red as the sun starts to set.




North Head Lighthouse
Cape Disappointment State Park is flanked by two lighthouses, both very old and still operational: the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and the North Head Lighthouse. The park is named after explorer John Meares who was looking for the head of the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean, and though he was quite literally sitting in the mouth of the river, failed to notice where he was. He named the cape in his disappointment. Park visitors wonder why a park would be named Disappointment, so I recount this story often. Sometimes I tell them that perhaps it should have been named Cape Ironic, or even Cape Stupid. This park encompasses the very land where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery first reached their destination and saw the Pacific Ocean after journeying along the Columbia River. Next year marks the bicentennial of their discovery, which means that both sides of the mouth of the river (Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington, and both Fort Stevens State Park and Fort Clatsop National Park in Oregon) will enjoy a great deal of attention.

The rangers at “Cape D.” are an eclectic group of individuals with diverse personalities and areas of interest. Eva best fits my stereotype of the Smokey Bear Ranger as a steward of the wildlife and the environment. Bob, our Ranger-In-Training, is eager and enthusiastic about learning everything there is to learn. He supervises the day-shift park aides, and writes up tasks for them in the Park Aide binder, which someone keeps relabeling “Bark Poop.” Joseph is the jokester and entertainer. Dirk is the silent, macho Burt Reynolds law-enforcement type. The park also employs several “interpretive specialists” who wear the ranger uniform but are not law enforcement officers, and work primarily at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center (LCIC) and provide educational programs for park visitors. Interpretive Specialist Mark exudes essence of southeast Portland as he gleefully argues against regulations and rides a recumbent bicycle to work from the nearby fishing town of Ilwaco. Many of the park employees have embraced the culture of the Long Beach Peninsula partaking in local recreation such as surfing, clamming and crabbing, and hiking. It is not unusual to see a park employee in the park on off-days enjoying its many resources.



One evening I came into the ratty trailer to warm up some leftovers for dinner. Eva was sitting at a folding table eating her dinner and reading a paperback. She looked up and smiled, waving her fork at me. I nodded back, and put my container in the microwave.

“What’re you reading?” I asked her.

The Gift of Fear. It’s something we were given at last year’s in-service. This guy is an expert at reading people. He’s used by police departments to help profile criminals. His book helps you realize that you really are able to tell intuitively when you’re in danger, and he helps you decipher the processing that your subconscious is doing.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“It is. I’ll loan it to you when I’m done. Then when you finish it, we can talk about it together.”

“Sounds great.”

The microwave rang. I stirred my leftover vegetables and rice and put them back in.

Eva had some marinara sauce on the left corner of her mouth. I wondered if I should tell her, but couldn’t find a delicate way to do so. Surely she’d use the restroom and look in the mirror before heading back to work. Right?

I wondered if she could sense I was an adoring fan, hanging on her every word and her slightest praise.



McKenzie Head, where the Pacific Ocean
was first sighted by the Corps of Discovery
Near the welcome station is a long strip of lawn too narrow to use the wide-deck riding mowers. I got the little push mower powered up and started cutting vertical swathes through the grass. As cars entered the park and stopped at the welcome station to register, I got a kick out of what they might think of the middle aged woman with grease and dirt on her jeans mowing the grass. I saw Interpretive Specialist Mark walk towards me from the maintenance building, turned off the mower and removed my earphones. Mark was sporting a beard and sideburns in honor of the upcoming Lewis and Clark bicentennial. His dirty blonde hair was a bit long, but it was hard to tell because he always wore a hat: baseball cap, the traditional ranger flat hat, or on cold days an Elmer Fudd number. He wore what can only be described as spectacles, the style of someone who wants to make some sort of statement. Perhaps not one of high fashion, but a statement nonetheless. I guessed he was in his early 30’s.

“So what do you think so far?” he asked.

“It’s great!  I love being here. It’s a really beautiful park, and it’s great to be outside and to use my muscles.”

Mark nodded. “You know when you first started here, with that little pack and radio I thought you were a biologist or something.”  He referred to my butt pack.

“No, just a lowly park aide,” I said with a smile.

“A lowly park aide, right…  So what did you do before this?”

I told him about my life raising my son in the Bay Area. “Chris is 18. He stayed in California when I decided to move to the Pacific Northwest. I’ve worked primarily in nonprofits which was great, but I worked mostly in offices under fluorescent lighting. I got tired of that, and of being tied to a computer. When Chris finished high school I realized it was my chance to do whatever I wanted with my life. So here I am, starting at the bottom rung.”

“You want to be a ranger?”

“That’s why I’m here. I’m still keeping my options open. I haven’t decided whether I’ll try with Washington State Parks, Oregon State Parks, or the National Park Service.”

“You know, interpretive specialists get to be in the trenches giving talks to park visitors every day, and they don’t have to carry a gun.”

“Yeah, I’m kind of looking forward to that part.”

“You want to carry a gun?”

“Well, I think it would be good for me. You know, develop that part of myself so that I can be tough when I need to be.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Well, don’t rule out becoming an interpretive specialist. I’d be happy to talk to you about it if you want to know more. And you should come by the LCIC sometime and look at the displays. Don’t worry, we won’t make you pay – it’s part of your job to learn about the history here. Well I should get going, and it looks like you’d better finish up quickly before the rain hits.”


I looked up at clouds boiling on the horizon. No sooner was he gone than the sky opened up. The mowing would have to stop for now.

   



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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Waking Up


I’m waking up.

I can feel it. And it is exciting, frightening, and painful.



Being a park ranger consumed my life: consumed all of my time, energy, and focus. Beyond the work day, it was also my primary activity during my off hours. Initially it was preparing to become a ranger while working as a seasonal: fitness training six days a week and inching my way through the very lengthy and in-depth application process. Then when I became a ranger it was continuing fitness training, adding firearms practice and martial arts, and researching and preparing campfire programs. And after things got real, my free time often was spent recovering physically from either a day-long defensive tactics training, or trying to catch my breath after the latest human tragedy. Once it started, I never once felt like I was able to recuperate and rejuvenate. My reserves were depleted early on and all that kept me going was a combination of determination and an inability to figure out what else to do besides put one foot in front of the other.

I’ve described my rangering years as feeling like I was in a street fight. Every day felt like a struggle for survival. (I don’t mean to suggest that being a park ranger is like a street fight. I only mean to say that my very particular experience of it felt that way.)

When I spent time with friends or on a date, I self-consciously realized that the only thing I had to talk about was my job; there simply was no other activity in my life.

When I left Washington State Parks, I felt like I’d been in a fog for the past five years. I felt like the world had gone by and I hadn’t noticed. The children in my life were suddenly five years older, a shocking realization even with those whom I’d seen during those years. I felt like I had missed five very important years in their growing up. Friendships had faded, social networks I’d been a part of had dissipated. The world had left me behind.
                                           


Leaving Parks did not mean I walked out of the fog. What it did mean is that I could stop fighting, and start healing. Getting myself into the shower, to work, and putting three squares in me every day has taken almost all of my focus, time and effort over the past four years. The little I’ve had leftover has been devoted to my healing process.



Now, at last, another layer of fog is lifting. I am finding that there is a little bit of room for something beyond just me for the first time in many years.

I’m waking up.

The first jolt happened a year and a half ago when my son Chris called to tell me that he had a tumorous growth  and was scheduled for surgery; and that tests seemed to suggest cancer. For quite a while I couldn’t talk with anyone about it, not even family. I needed them to not bring it up with me. I felt like the precarious balance I had in my life could be shattered with one misspoken word. Only to Chris I would talk; because I couldn’t imagine not making room for him.

His news and the unfolding uncertainty shook away some of the fog. I felt like a bandage was ripped off my heart, and what was revealed was the vulnerability and fierceness of my love for my son. No playing it cool anymore, that young man meant the world to me. His existence in the world, his breathing breath, filled me with a love that is deep and ancient and protective and painful. I needed him to be in the world. I needed him to be in my life. I needed him to take his next breath, so that I could go on breathing.

As the months went on, and then a year passed, I struggled to find a place for all of this. Chris’ news has continued to be encouraging, but people who love someone who has had cancer cannot pretend ignorance anymore of the fact that life can be ripped away in the space of a breath. Feeling my love for him wasn’t a struggle; it was a permanent fixture, something I could tune into and sense simply by turning my attention to it. I suppose that opening in my heart was really just reserved for him. Bandages still covered most of my heart. Much of the fog remained.



My niece Simone’s death two months ago has had reverberations throughout our extended family and I still can’t begin to understand how her dying has changed me, is changing me.

In much the way Chris’ cancer diagnosis ripped off the bandage revealing the painful and deep love I have for him, Simone’s death has ripped off more bandages. Her death is tragic and heartbreaking and incomprehensible. There is no silver lining. But when the bandages were ripped off, I was compelled to face the vulnerability that comes from loving the other young people in my life: all my nieces, nephews, and my son's partner Selena. 

My love is palpable and unrelenting; it is heartbreaking and terrifying. And it is also the most beautiful thing life can offer. How privileged I am to have these wonderful young people in my life. I don’t want to take that for granted. I can’t take that for granted. Because I know that tomorrow isn’t promised.
It is hard, this waking up: waking up to the pain of our vulnerability, waking up to the breathtaking beauty of life.








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Monday, December 9, 2013

RANGERING: September 2004

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.


I spent most of my first day working with Ranger Eva. We started with a road trip covering the full scope of the park area, which included several beach approaches and the entire stretch of ocean beach along the 22 miles of the Long Beach Peninsula. Many of the beach approaches had restrooms; some were complete restrooms with plumbing while others were small glorified pit toilet vaults called CXT’s. There was a collection of four day-use parks, although only Cape Disappointment offered overnight camping. I wouldn’t typically work outside Cape D. but Eva told me sometimes I’d help clean the restrooms along the beach; plus she wanted me to have a sense of the entire area to better assist park visitors wanting to explore the peninsula.


As we headed back towards Cape Disappointment, Ranger Steve radioed Eva to ask if she was in the park.

“No, I’ve been showing Kjerstin the rest of the area.”

“OK. I’m heading into campsite 82 that seems to be having some problems. Reports of loud arguing and drinking. I’ll let you know when I’m clear.”

“How many people are at the site?” Eva asked.

There was no answer. Eva repeated her question. “Parks 206, Parks 312.”  Still no answer. She flipped a switch that turned on the law enforcement light bar on the top of the truck, and we started speeding along the back roads back to the park.

My adrenaline shot up. “Are you worried about him?” 

“Now that he didn’t answer I am. Sometimes we don’t get good radio reception along this route though, so it could be that.” 

I felt a bit foolish for feeling as excited as I did. We sped along narrow roads I’d never driven, past weathered cottages and grand beach homes, a place called the Tch Tch Inn, lots of tree stumps carved into mushrooms, and a prevalence of pickup trucks.



The radio squawked, “Parks 312, Parks 206.”

Eva responded.

Steve’s voice said, “I’m clear. There wasn’t much going on.”

“Parks 206.”  She slowed back down and flipped the switch that turned the law enforcement lights off.

I asked Eva if that kind of thing happened often. “There’s more law enforcement than I care for. People get drunk, and then they don’t or can’t control themselves. Most of the time it doesn’t amount to anything. But sometimes we evict disruptive people from the park.”

“What if they’re too drunk to drive?”

“That’s a problem. We can’t put them behind the wheel if they’re drunk. We’ll try to find a sober member of their group. Short of that, we’ll see if a friend will come get them. But if not, we try to put them to bed and then evict them the next morning.”

“What if they won’t go to bed?”

“Most of the time the news that they’re going to have to leave in the morning puts an end to the party. But we can always threaten to write them a ticket if they won’t settle down. Unfortunately sometimes there’s nothing we can do, and in the morning we just have to try to make it right with the nearby campers who were disrupted.”

I thought that sounded rather unsatisfactory.

“Steve is really good with his verbals. He’s very professional and confident, and is usually successful at getting compliance. Since you’re interested in becoming a ranger, you might want to do some ride-alongs with him.”



After our dinner break Eva gave me instructions on cleaning the restrooms and we cleaned them together. There were eight sets throughout the park, each with a men’s and women’s side. All of them had multiple stalls, and most of them had showers as well. A locked “pipe chase” was a room that ran between the two sides and was stocked with cleaning supplies and extra toilet paper. Every surface that was likely to be touched by skin was cleaned with a disinfecting solution. Toilet paper, paper towels, and sanitary napkin holders were restocked. Floors were swept and mopped. It was pretty detailed and I asked, “How long do I have for cleaning them?”  “Four hours; the second half of your shift. It works out to about 15 minutes per side.”  I wondered how that was possible, particularly as we sometimes had to wait outside the men’s for it to clear out. Eva sang as we worked. The Singing Ranger, I thought.

Long before my shift was over I was ravenous and completely exhausted. I ached all over from standing, walking, scrubbing, and slinging around an industrial-sized, water-heavy mop. As I drove out of the park headed for home I counted nine deer.




It was my first time driving across the Astoria-Megler Bridge after dark. I drove along the low, flat portion and started to approach the high span. It was a very dark night, overcast concealing stars and moon. All I could see was an even deeper darkness ahead of me, capped at the very top by a couple flashing red lights. I could not tell what it was I was driving towards. Suddenly I couldn’t remember if it was a draw bridge. Perhaps the bridge was up; the blackness ahead looked very much like it could be a rectangular wall of concrete that I was heading straight for. I slowed down more and more as I came closer, still unable to see if there was road ahead of me or a giant concrete wall. The car behind honked. “Easy for you,” I mumbled. “You aren’t the one about to drive straight into a concrete wall.”  At the final moment, my car barely creeping along, the blackness resolved into a steep road climbing up to the heights of the bridge, finally cresting, then corkscrewing down into the town of Astoria. I laughed at myself in relief.





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