Sunday, April 27, 2014

RANGERING: June 2005

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 drove into Olympia and followed the directions I’d printed out to get to the medical clinic. I was given a cursory medical exam which included peeing into a cup for the drug test. The steps used to verify that the sample was mine and uncontaminated lent a serious nature to the procedure: I undressed and stored my clothing and purse in a locker, donned a medical gown, and entered the bathroom without any belongings. I was not allowed to flush the toilet or wash my hands until I emerged from the bathroom, pee cup in hand, and observed the tech seal the container and affix my information to it.

Oregon Grape
After I was finished I drove to the Parks Headquarters campus, a collection of dark green wood buildings nestled among tall evergreens and connected by salal and oregon grape lined pathways.

The polygraph was far different than I imagined. For the majority of the time I was not hooked up to the machine. For nearly three hours the man conducting the polygraph and I reviewed my lengthy personal history statement, then spent some time discussing the dozen questions Mr. Bannister was going to test me on. In some cases he slightly modified the questions to avoid any that I could not answer with a clear “yes” or “no.” He wanted to make sure I understood the questions fully before testing my responses. Finally I was hooked up to the machine; apparently I breathe about equally from my chest and from my belly. Mr. Bannister told that he would ask me the set of a dozen questions three separate times in order to better compare and analyze results.

When Mr. Bannister said, “I’m going to start now,” my reading spiked. Then I answered comfortably through the first set. When he said for the second time, “I’m going to start now,” again I briefly spiked. After the second time through the questions Mr. Bannister unhooked me from the polygraph.

“Well, there’s no need to go through the questions a third time. Both times through you spiked when I told you the test was about to begin, then you essentially flat lined through the questions.” He showed me the printout which echoed his words. He said with a friendly smile, “So either you’re enormously honest, or you have a promising future in defeating polygraphs.”

I drove downtown to my hotel and checked into my room. I unpacked my duffel bag and quickly perused the kitchenette. From there I walked downtown along the waterfront; it was a beautiful sunny day and boats bobbed on the sparkling water in the marina. A farmers market was bustling with activity. I walked the rows of colorful produce, flowers, jams and honey. I bought fresh organic produce and soaked up some precious sunshine.

Olympia Farmers Market
That evening after eating my simply prepared vegetables I donned my swimsuit and took a long, indulgent soak in the hotel hot tub. I finished my evening watching cable TV, pure luxury.

I didn’t have any ranger activities scheduled for my second day in Olympia. A few weeks prior I had gone on a marathon field trip scouting out parks on the west side of the state and clocking nearly 1,000 miles in two days. I decided to revisit some of the parks that had piqued my interest on that earlier trip.

After a full day exploring I returned to Olympia and went to a Japanese restaurant Ranger Eva had recommended. I have missed sushi, the absence of which on the coast is ironic given the availability of fresh seafood. I started with hot sake, hot tea, and a bowl of miso soup. I stirred the fragrant broth before every sip. Each taste of hot sake spread warmth and relaxation through my body. Then my sushi arrived.

As she set down a platter with a spider roll and enough nigiri for two people, the waitress said cheerfully, “All this sushi just for you – you don’t have to share with anyone!” I beamed at her and thanked her for the beautifully prepared food.

The third and final day was the psychological interview, again at Parks headquarters. This experience contrasted sharply from the polygraph. A bland looking man in his mid to late 30’s conducted the interview with a stunning lack of feedback or any indication that he was in fact human. For two hours the psychiatrist relentlessly probed my most painful memories. He asked me pointed questions about an abusive relationship I’d been in: specifics of the abuse, how I responded to it, if I had ever retaliated with violence.

If I had any doubts before, this confirms that the State of Washington now knows more about me than anyone else does, and probably more than I know myself.

Olympia Waterfront
I left feeling shaken and doubting whether I had passed his scrutiny. If he was evaluating whether I was sufficiently healed from these past traumas, I didn’t believe he had asked the right questions; he didn’t ask about how I had made peace with my past, how I was in relationships today. He didn’t ask the questions that would determine that I’m as well-adjusted as anyone.

Over the next few days my unsettled feelings grew, as I realized that the interview had uncovered painful memories that I wasn’t sure how to deal with. I felt as if he had performed open heart surgery on me, and hadn’t closed me back up. My sister, a therapist, gave me some tools to feel more grounded. 

I candidly shared my concerns with rangers Eva and Steve, whom I talked with frequently about my ranger application process.

“You know, I don’t think the psychologist was trying to determine if you are well-adjusted now or not,” Ranger Steve offered. “I think he was intentionally asking disturbing questions in order to observe your reaction to being relentlessly probed. He was trying to provoke you, see if you would lose your temper, become rattled, or stop cooperating.”

This was an entirely different way to look at the interview. I thought back over my reactions. Sure I’d been impassioned and energized, but I definitely did not lose my temper or become unhinged. Steve’s interpretation made a lot of sense. With their take on things I felt more positive about the outcome.

I looked through my notes and photos of the parks I had visited. Dosewallips State Park really stands out from the crowd. It is on Highway 101, on the west side of Puget Sound heading towards Port Townsend. It’s beautiful, they are involved in some fabulous efforts at environmental restoration and stewardship, and from everything I hear the park manager is a great guy.

However Cape Disappointment offers a group of co-workers whom I already know and get along with, friends on both sides of the Columbia River, a small gay and lesbian community, and the nearby town of Astoria. This is where I hope to become a park ranger.

It could come together perfectly: Ranger Joseph has been promoted to another park, and Eva stands an excellent chance of getting his job – which would leave her Ranger 1 position vacant. In the meantime, when our office manager returns from maternity leave I will be allowed to resume my park aide duties. Everything is lining up perfectly.

And so I wait, because at the moment there is nothing else for me to do.

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!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why We Hide

Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share in the hopes 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.

I know why people keep silent about their wounds. It is because when they voice their pain, they are speaking a language that few others speak. It makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know how to respond. This falls outside normal rules of banter and small talk. People fear that the bad news will be catching; they fear that another’s suffering will bring them down. Perhaps they are devotees of happiness-worship and think the person in pain is choosing to live in pain.

I know why people keep silent about their wounds. It is because they feel battered by responses that are indifferent, cold, and terribly insensitive.

When they share that a loved one is very ill, people say, “she’ll be OK,” as if saying that had magical properties. They say, “You have to stay positive,” as if bad things don’t happen to people with positive attitudes.

They say, “Everything happens for a reason,” or even, “Everything will turn out for the best,” as if our lives will eventually arrive somewhere that is The Best, and stay there forever.

When they share that a loved one has died, people say, “She is OK now,” as if they know. People say, “I am facing the same thing. My 16 year old cat has just been diagnoses with a terminal illness.” People, with barely an acknowledgement of your struggle, launch into a retelling of their Great Uncle Bert’s cancer, or the story of a neighbor’s cousin dying.

At a time when we are hurting deeply, and with great vulnerability reach out in search of comfort, these types of careless responses bring searing pain.

For those of us who have seen a friend or family member go through an extended depression, or grief over a divorce or losing a loved one, or a lengthy battle with cancer, it is hard. It is draining, we wonder why they can’t just snap out of it, and we worry that they will bring us down (in fact our conversations with them, which always go the same way, do bring us down).

For those of us who are going through an extended hardship, maintaining friendships is hard. We know we are a broken record, and we’re quite self-conscious about it. We feel unheard and invalidated by those who would suggest a quick fix, a snap-out-of-it, or a look-on-the-bright-side. For one, we can’t. We have wished it for ourselves. We have hoped, morning after morning, that today we would feel “normal.”

But sometimes we have a sense of the important inner work we are doing. Pain is also a part of the human experience. How could it not be? The body eventually starts to break down and dies. What huge losses we endure throughout our lives. By honoring our pain, living there, we are experiencing Life at a deeper level. We are honoring our healing process and trusting that however long it takes, allowing it all the time it needs will always be better than pretending to be better.

Would anyone suggest that modern society is well equipped to handle our deepest longings, questions, and pain? From before our ancestors stood upright, we grieved when we lost a loved one, and we were comforted by others. I have no doubt life had to go on, but I also imagine that life could go on while one was grieving, that there was no secrecy around grief and loss. Today you don’t bring your problems to work. I believe it’s the 11th commandment, Thou Shalt Not Cry at Work (or in the Grocery Store). When our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, would the mother who’d just lost her baby cry as she picked berries and roots? Of that I have no doubt; I also have no doubt that was accepted and not frowned upon.

What has happened, that being in the presence of someone else’s pain, of being reminded of their pain, is so uncomfortable to us? Do we feel responsible for making them better? Do we feel they are relying too heavily on us to provide their sole source of comfort?

Perhaps those of us suffering wouldn’t be so desperate for comfort and validation, if we didn’t feel our pain was ignored and invalidated in the rest of our lives, any time we leave our homes. We must put on a brave face and carry on as if we hadn’t just suffered this enormous loss, as if we were not fighting a disease that might kill us, as if Life hadn’t just ripped the rug out from under us, as if we weren’t drowning.

How would it feel, if we were allowed to be human as we went about our daily lives? I don’t think we would be so desperate for that comfort, overburdening a small group of confidantes with our pain. And those who love the person suffering would not feel so overwhelmed.

Perhaps all we need – in this crazy world that equates emoting with weakness and unprofessionalism, equates sorrow with a negative attitude, equates depression as a burden on friends – is to feel validated.

Towards the end of that particularly difficult summer as a park ranger, a collision between a vehicle and motorcycle on the highway in front of our park ended in another death (this was the fifth of that summer). All three of us rangers were on shift since it was a Friday early evening, and we all responded to the accident. When flight rescue had taken away the motorcycle driver, state patrol had come, and the scene cleaned up enough for traffic to resume normal flow, we went back into the park. The two of us working into the night took our dinner breaks. I called my mom because I knew in an hour I would resume working my shift as if nothing had happened, and I needed to tell someone. I told her there had been another death, and I sobbed. I sobbed through my break, then washed my face and tucked my sorrow away, in order to be prepared for whatever the evening might bring on a busy summer weekend at the park.

What happens to us, every time we have to tuck away our horror, pain and confusion? When do we get to let that out? Or are most of us limited to that one-hour break before we have to pull ourselves together? Or venting to our dwindling group of friends until we burn out another friendship?

What would happen if, instead, we lived in a society that understood we are all living the human experience, every day, and every one of us suffers horrendous pain and loss at some point? What would happen if the trip to the grocery store, or the eight hours at work, didn’t require us to stuff it? What if we weren’t all pretending to be “normal” all the time? It’s hard to imagine, silly really: one man embracing another, in tears, at the water cooler; a woman at the grocery store crying over a magazine. But if I imagine before our culture became so artificial, so distanced from the ebbs and flows of the human life, it isn’t so silly. One man embracing another, in tears, as they fashion a plough for the fields; a woman’s tears wetting the soil where she plants seedlings.

Would it be easier for us to move on, if first we were allowed to fully honor our loss?

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, April 11, 2014


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.

Two weeks before the park ranger fitness test, I got the news that my Gramma Gould had suffered a massive stroke. Soon it was realized that her body would not recover, and my dad and aunt made the painful decision to remove medical interventions and allow her to die.

I took two trips to Portland, the first hoping to see my Gramma before she passed (she died early on the morning I left, long before I got there), then again for her funeral. Most difficult is seeing how hard this is on my dad, how extremely well he is holding up, and wondering at what cost to his health.

It’s impossible not to reflect on death and dying: her death is a startling reminder that nothing is permanent, that eventually we will lose everyone dear to us, and ultimately we will lose our own lives here on this planet.

Weddle Bridge, Sweet Home OR
Our whole family including all my siblings and my son Chris drove from Portland south to Sweet Home, my dad’s hometown. Only pieces here and there are familiar to me from the handful of years my family lived here during my early adolescence. The service at the Evangelical church seemed to honor Jesus more than Gramma; and there haven’t been any opportunities to express grief beyond politely dabbing one’s eyes; and it saddens me that I don’t recognize many of the relatives who know me.

But it is comforting being among relatives like my cousins who, even though I am not an active part of their lives, are family. It is so nice having my son Chris here, and a gathering of all us siblings is a rare event anymore.

After the service my dad led our family on a stroll – he is like the pied piper, with all of us strung out in a line behind him – to the house he was raised in. The day is beautiful, warm and sunny. Probably he’s shown me that house before, but I don’t recall.

Being in training and so close to the test I have avoided alcohol (though it beckons me) and the multitudes of desserts, and I’ve managed to fit in my fitness regime.

On the long drive back home, just two days before the long drive north for my fitness test, I am grateful to be able to focus my energy and attention on the upcoming test.

I have been using my weekends to see what types of morning nourishment most help my performance: complex carbs, simple sugars, protein, or a combination thereof. I am confident in my training and preparations, although unfortunately my adrenaline kicked in at bedtime last night and I hardly slept at all. I awoke nervous, energized, and shaking. The shaking didn’t stop until our third event.
Capitol Lake, Olympia WA

We met at a school campus in Olympia, Washington; there were about 20 of us. Two men, both rangers from Washington State Parks were there to test us. They were extremely upbeat and encouraging. Most hopefuls were men in their 20’s or early 30’s, though there were two other women (one of whom arrived on a Harley) and a fellow in his 50’s named Ivan who is friendly and pleasant, has a wiry runners build, and claims he hasn’t trained at all for the run. And there’s a park ranger with Oregon State Parks named Russ, who hopes to become a ranger for Washington State.

We started with sit-ups. I jammed, meeting the requirement in just over half the time allowed. I felt confident about my pushups: my typical method was 10 in a row, pause for a couple extra breaths, then the remaining 10 with one or two more pauses. At my first pause everyone started cheering me on, concerned perhaps that I was reaching my limit. I completed them comfortably. I was surprised to make the 15” vertical jump on the first try, the one activity I’d practiced the least. Jumping, I’d found out, is a learned skill. If you jump a lot for example playing basketball, you will naturally become better at it.

I stepped on a scale to show my weight, and the bar was adjusted to 70% of my body weight. Not often having a spotter, most of my practice was on a machine which held the bar at a constant horizontal plane. As I started pushing up the bar tipped to the right; I managed to get back under it and push the bar up over my head.

Then we all walked outside to the track.

“Do you think Washington is a better state to work for than Oregon?” I asked Russ.

“Heck yeah,” he replied. He was an affable, jovial guy. I wanted to ask him more.

I ran one-and-a-half miles at my usual comfortable pace, 2 minutes under the 15 minute limit. Our final event was the 300 meter run. It was tempting to try to keep up with the three men I was grouped with. But I knew how to run it, so I stuck to my practice pace for the first two-thirds, then ran full out for the final third. I beat my own time by almost 10 seconds, completing the run in 58 seconds (72 allowed).

And just like that it was over. I felt very satisfied and proud of what I’ve been training for the past half year. I did not feel celebratory; it was more of a quiet, private sense of accomplishment.

After a snack break and a quick phone call to tell my parents I had passed the physical exam (to which they let out a “whoop” in unison), we filed into a classroom and sat down for more than three hours of various written psychological tests. I turned in my test papers and I started the long drive back home.

It will be close to a month before I hear if I passed the written psychological exam. If so I will be invited back up north for a two or three-day session involving the polygraph, oral psychological interview, medical exam, and drug tests. After that it will take another month for them to complete the scoring and rank me along with the other applicants. At that point I will start getting calls to interview at parks with ranger openings.

I know it’s still possible that I will be disqualified on any of those tests, however I don’t think it’s likely. And I find it reassuring to know that there isn’t anything I can do about it. I am who I am, I have the past that I do, and I have been completely honest about all of it. Only they get to decide if I am the type of person they want to be a gun-carrying ranger.
Willapa National Wildlife Refuge

I had to get up for work the next day which was hard – my body was weary! But then I have a free weekend. I plan to thoroughly clean my neglected abode, start work on my garden (so it’s late, so what!), and go on a hike and soak up some sun in the Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Life is fleeting. But life is good.

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, April 4, 2014

Battle Scars

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

During those months as a park aide at Cape Disappointment I desperately wanted to belong, wanted to have found my new “tribe,” and became increasingly frustrated that I was not welcome with open arms. As my frustration rose, I had difficulty keeping it from showing. I continued to work hard and would lament, “Why can’t they just accept me as I am? Yes sometimes I’m cranky and impatient, but I’m an awesome employee, loyal and hard working.”

In the years since, that has continued to be my cry: “why can’t they accept me as I am?”

The problem, I believe, was not in that wish. The problem was that I wanted This Tribe to welcome me as I was. Wouldn’t life be so much easier, if people just felt the way I wanted them to feel?

Roosevelt Elk
I still believe it is a worthy goal to find a place where I am accepted for who I am; perhaps it is the only choice that allows a person to live with integrity and self-worth. But the way to get there is not to pick the tribe and expect to be accepted; rather it is to relentlessly Be Who I Am, and pay attention to where I am accepted.

I heard this fabulous program on This American Life, a weekly radio show that presents unique and intriguing stories. This particular story was about a woman named Giulietta Carrelli who suffers from schizoaffective disorder. This mental health disorder is very debilitating. At a certain point in her life Giulietta concluded, “This is me…. I just destroy relationships, I can’t hold an apartment, I can’t hold a job. I’m nice enough, I try my best, this is just who I am.”

The story describes how Giulietta came to open her own café in San Francisco, the Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club (which serves only coffee, coconuts, grapefruit juice and cinnamon toast). There are so many things that I love about her story, and I encourage you to listen to the 17 minute program. Perhaps my favorite thing is that this woman has some very specific needs because of her disorder, needs that most likely would prevent her from successfully using a typical business model. Instead, she created a business that fits her needs (for example one with a very limited menu); and in doing so she has created a life for herself that fits her needs. She has relentlessly been herself, and in doing so she has found her tribe.

Her story is powerful and beautiful, and stands as an inspiration to anyone feeling hopeless about fitting in, about finding their tribe. The Radio Show: Coffee:

When I first decided to start this blog, I made the decision in the space between two breaths. Without giving myself a few days or even overnight to think about it, I figured out the fastest way to put a blog online, and I started writing.

When I told my therapist about my blog, she asked if I was writing it under a pseudonym. When I told her no, she was not quite able to hide her uncertainty. I appreciated her uncertainty, even as I often worry about the doors this may close for me. But I knew that I needed to stop hiding my wounds, I knew that I needed to not only write, but share my story with others.

It is dawning on me, nearly a year after starting this blog, that this is a position of strength. I am claiming my wounds, those things I have kept secret. Instead of worrying about who might find out, or worrying about what people will think if they see me on those days I dont quite seem normal, I am claiming all the wounds that life has given me. I do not always feel strong, I do not always feel confident, but I am stronger when I let the light in and expose my deepest worries and fears and pain. I am stronger when I speak out rather than hide in uncertainty. These traumas have shaped me, just as much as precious moments have shaped me.

“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” 

― Tyrion, A Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin)

I am wounded precisely because I risked, I strove, I chased after my dreams and did not let fear hold me back. If these are my wounds, I should feel proud of them – because they are wounds born of living bravely and fully.

In some indigenous tribes, such as the Ohlone in NW California, warriors would proudly display their battle scars. Today a mother celebrates her stretch marks, a cancer survivor his or her surgery scars; these scars tell a story of perseverance and bravery. Of course my scars aren’t visible; but then, so many scars from living in today’s society are invisible. Enduring abuse, being robbed, miscarrying, losing a child or a sibling, the scars from these battles cannot be seen. And yet they are real, and they are a testament to human strength and resilience.

These are my battle scars. I earned them by living fully and without regret. 

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!