culture & society, feminism, personal journeys, Uncategorized

I am not a strong, independent woman

Sometimes I go traveling or rappelling or hitchhiking by myself. Other times, I drink wine in the bathtub because it was a really hard day and I just want to listen to Celine Dion in peace, goddammit. Sometimes I’m strong and sometimes I’m a mess. Sometimes I’m independent and sometimes I just really, really need to be cuddled and probably want someone to give me chocolate five minutes ago.

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stacking stones at the Brough of Birsay, Orkney Islands: a balancing act

I don’t believe anybody can be strong and independent all the time.

The cliché really bothers me, mostly because ‘strong, independent women’ are pretty much made to look all the same. You know what I mean: in movies, you get a ‘strong, independent woman’ who’s innocent but sexy, as strong as a guy but still definitely feminine, independent but happy to take a guy on board. She’s different from all the other girls, acts like a guy, and is almost completely strong and independent.

This strikes me as a wee bit unrealistic, no? Also, the stereotype is based on the assumption that being strong and independent is a very male thing to be. Think of any Mission Impossible movie and you get my point.

This stereotype is dangerous because it focuses on one person or character as a ‘hero of the story’, an ‘intrepid adventurer’ but neglects to show a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses. It’s great we have Wonder Woman and Khaleesi (and I love them dearly), but I also think if we think that only unrealistically and narrowly-defined strong, independent women can do strong and independent things we’ll limit ourselves horrendously. I want to see more action movies with young, scared single moms as the leads; I want to see more far-less-than-perfect characters.

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Women–simple, everyday women–who are sometimes strong and sometimes weak can do incredibly strong things. They can go on adventures, be the unexpected hero like Bilbo Baggins, and be independent even though they sometimes also aren’t.

Instead of trying to be strong, independent heroes, let’s try to be strong characters: interesting characters who grow and evolve, fail and thrive throughout a long story that defies a linear plot and simple answers. Love the strength and weakness, the muscle and the frown lines, and allow yourself to feel everything that comes with being alive.

 

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anthropology, culture & society, mountains, munros, personal journeys, Scotland, travel & adventure, Uncategorized

where do we roam?

My father has told me several times throughout my life that freedom is the degree to which you are able to take responsibility for yourself. 

Caveats and social justice questions aside, I believe this no more firmly than I do on the river, at a crag, or in the hills. The ability to roam or wander and to know that you and only you can be responsible for your own safety–or your own ability to experience awe and joy–is distinctly empowering.

It’s wearing your mortality as proudly as a bird wears its feathers, letting your own awe and smallness take you deeper into the world.

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me getting ready to wild camp on the Trotternish Ridge with Maryam. Isle of Skye, Scotland

In Scotland, I mainly experienced this freedom by walking. If you’ve been around this blog before, you’ve heard me talk about it a great deal. Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ made this magic. Very simply, as long as you don’t damage someone’s property or trample their garden, you can pretty much walk anywhere that isn’t industrially dangerous. You can camp in fields as long as you don’t damage crops or disrupt livestock. You can cut across miles of pasture on your way up to a knife-edge ridge. This freedom strikes me as fundamental to the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions: you are responsible for how you care for the landscape, for your own safety, for navigation, for each step.

This freedom enables so many adventures. I climbed munro after munro, walked the entire 117-mile Fife Coastal Path and other hills besides with a dear friend, explored miles of the Moray Coast with another, and wandered and hitched across many islands.

Here in Pennsylvania, there is, quite sadly, no right to roam. It’s strange as ‘roaming’ seems to be very compatible with American mythology. Instead, I find some of that freedom on the rivers, the crags, and the creeks.

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Nick getting us ready to kayak on the upper Allegheny River

Nick and I have put in many miles this year thus far, kayaking parts of the Allegheny River, the Clarion River, the Kiskimenetas River, and Buffalo Creek. It’s been a lovely adventure. Oftentimes the waterways carry us past old railroads which have been turned into paths for cycling and walking–‘Rails to Trails’ for anyone who’s not familiar.  Primitive camping sites along some of these rivers give me a little of what I miss: complete responsibility for my food, my sleep, all my needs, just for a day or two.

At some point, I think I’ll tell the story of how the ‘right to roam’ was actually won in Scotland. It’s a good story with mass trespassing and angry union workers demanding a right to walk and move and enjoy their country without having to spend an arm and a leg. (Though the crags might take an arm or a leg from you for themselves.) I’ll explore how ‘adventure’ and ‘recreation’ operate in different places and amongst different sociopolitical systems. For now, however, I have a few questions.

What do you think of the right to roam?

Do you think the right to roam enhances or detracts from personal freedom?

Do you think that, if U.S. citizens were able to experience more of their environment more freely, there would be a greater desire for environmental responsibility?

What does ‘private property’ mean, and what does freedom mean to you?

Just questions to ponder. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy whatever adventure is readily available to you. Personally, I believe nearly every place offers its own unique freedom. It might not be as readily available to one group of people as it is to another, and that’s part of the inequality inherent in our current world. But I also believe that making the world such that more people might enjoy it takes going out there and enjoying it for yourself, claiming space and claiming adventure.

That’s the only way you can share the joy of the outdoors with others and advocate for the expansion and preservation of that joy.

Do and enjoy what you can, now, with what you have, and share your explorations whenever possible.

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anthropology, culture & society, Uncategorized

our rainbow bridges

It’s no secret that I love anthropology. Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading about different people and places, and, at the University of St Andrews, my Social Anthropology degree irrevocably changed how I think. But a recent visit with Oma–my German grandmother–reminded me of one of the most crucial lessons I learned throughout my whole degree.

It seems that every time I see my oma, I hear another part of family history for which I’d previously been a little too young. Germany during and after World War II was, of course, a very complicated place, a place whose figments often resurface in my mind and challenge my sense of identity.

I wonder what my great-grandparents thought about the war. I wonder which prejudices they carried, which dear friends they lost, which homes were bombed and burnt around them. The potential for baffled complicity with genuine evil terrifies me just as much as my sympathy for indescribable loss moves me.

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my oma as a little girl

Thus, the stories my oma tells me of her own small family during that time strike me hard. Recently, she told me the story of her biological father.

The man and soon-to-be father was taken prisoner by the Russians at the Eastern Front and spent five years in a Siberian gulag. My oma’s mother assumed he was dead. When her biological father finally came back, he found that his former best friend had divorced his own wife after falling hard for my oma’s mother so they, in turn, could be married. My oma only found out that the man she grew up knowing as her dad wasn’t, in fact, her father, when she was in her thirties. This, of course, was long after she had crossed the Atlantic and had two children of her own.

My oma has only one memory of her biological father–that of a sad man sitting across from her and her mother at a restaurant. My oma was three years old, and she remembers the thin and weary man signing papers. He pushed these papers back to her mother one by one and with a sigh.

Oma and I were bent over a sewing project as she told me this. My hands looked so long and clumsy next to her compact and quick fingers.

“I would never condone their actions. I can’t say I understand why they did what they did, and I would never do it myself, Schatzi,” she said, bending over me. “Hold that cloth tighter. There you go. You need to keep the tightness same.” She paused. “But Em, you also cannot understand what they went through. You did not see the darkness they did. You can talk about it for as long as you want, but you never really hear what they were thinking. I think about this from time to time.”

There was nothing to say after that; her words sunk deep into my head as my fingers worked.

My oma and I spent hours and hours talking about everything and nothing. She gives me a very deep sense of home; her accent makes me feel safe and her still-broken grammar carries the same mistakes my mother sometimes makes when she’s not careful, that sometimes even I make when I’m a bit spacy. We watched travel shows in German together and talked about people we trust, people we love, hiking trips we’ve enjoyed, and about how to best plan for traveling. We talked about traveling to St Petersburg together in a year or two, and we agreed to do our separate research.

When she left, I cried for a good half hour because I hadn’t been able to be a child with her and play with her and know more about her. Maybe I’m a total dork, but it struck me that this is the challenge with almost every relationship and in nearly any culture. You want to know a person, yet, at some point, it comes down to words. It comes down to a thin bridge made of sentences and memories. Sometimes, this seems just as implausible as following a rainbow to a crock of gold.

Making space in my life for these small stories continuously strikes me in a way I never anticipate. The words my oma and I spin together create a place where we can understand each other while knowing that, as she says, “One can never know what goes on behind the forehead of another person.” Our listening makes me keenly aware of the places words can never bridge, no matter what I wish, while also making me wish and work harder for the bridges I can build.

I believe this “making space”, this affirmation of the humanity of those who we will never understand, is anthropology at its best. How can I ever claim to understand or to study something or someone I do not first listen to out of love?

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Uncategorized

delusions of grandeur

When I was about eight years old, my mom introduced me to the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman TV-show, and I was hooked.

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I played Wonder Woman when I wasn’t pretending to be Pippi Longstocking. Super-human strength? Sounded awesome. Red high-heeled boots and an American flag corset? Even better. But above all, I wanted to be the hero. I would imagine fighting bad guys away from my family with magic wristbands and riding a horse to lasso escaped kidnappers and thieves. Other times, I pretended to be either Aragorn or Eowyn or Arwen, and I would always have a sword.

Delusions of grandeur, you see, are particularly gender-blind amongst children. Most kids are dying to be the hero. They want to fight their bad guys, get up from the tough falls, and (more or less) do good.

But then something happened. Age eleven happened, for one, which was when I started getting the conservative American evangelical Christian schtick about modesty (lest you tempt men to think bad thoughts about you, which would be your fault) and purity (where women just don’t understand how men work, innocent little things we are).* I felt as if ‘lust’ was somehow wrong before I even had any conception of ‘desire’. As a woman, I was supposed to be pure, and, of course, my only “temptation” would be “emotional” rather than “physical.”

Somehow, being a hero didn’t seem quite so easy.

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Little sponge I was, I also started absorbing everything I saw on magazine covers and on TV. My heart would pound harder every time I walked past the grocery store checkout, simply because I knew I would see something that would measure my worth. And I so wanted to be worth something. If I couldn’t be exactly the hero I wanted to be–if I couldn’t be Wonder Woman chasing down the bad guys and making men fall for her–I at least wanted to be beautiful. I at least wanted a hero to want me. If I wasn’t able to feel desire unashamedly, perhaps I could become desirable.

This triggered a fairly sharp descent into disordered eating behaviors. I had to control my body and my appetite and everything I felt because everything I felt was so confusing; I constantly worried I was doing or about to do something wrong.

Over the years, those behaviors waxed and waned and waxed again, but always because I so badly wanted to believe the promise of control, beauty, and “good enough.” I wanted to feel I was worth a hero.

By saying all of this, I by no means intend to blame anyone for what I’ve dealt with–least of all my parents or any others whom I dearly love. I see my struggles as the cumulative result of first genetics, then environment, acquaintances, consumer culture, etc. Nobody is to giphy (2)blame, least of all people who’ve done their absolute best to show me love.

If you’ve read any of the rest of my blog, you’ll know some of the rest of the story. I’m doing a lot better now especially in terms of depression and anxiety. This has been the result of medication, therapy, family support, great friends, and a ton of hard work.

About a year ago, when I was fighting through the harder things, I read a book called “Half-Broke Horses.” This book grabbed me by the throat from page one. The heroine–the author’s grandmother–was nothing short of a messy, complicated, flawed badass woman who never stopped. She broke horses from the time she could walk, and when she was fifteen she undertook a 500-mile solo trek across the desert to teach at a remote school with no more than an eighth-grade education. She failed somewhat as a mother and a sister, ran away from her own anger, and took risks she maybe shouldn’t have.

She wasn’t perfect; she wasn’t Wonder Woman. But she didn’t let her failures dampen her sense of resilience.

Later in life, when she owned her own ranch and was driving some Chicago journalists around the Arizona desert, her car’s brakes went whilst heading down a mountain pass. She strategically crashed the car and got everyone out. Her words to the terrified journalists were: “If you ride a horse, you gotta know how to fall, and if you drive a car you sure as shit better know how to crash one.”

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Resilience, I firmly believe, is knowing that shit will go down and that you can deal with it, or at least figure out how to deal with it.

But, additionally, I think the (highly imperfect) strength and resilience I have now are mine as a result of reclaiming that luminous childhood grandiosity–tempered, of course, by a bit of common sense, a few trips to the emergency room and a few scars. It’s the belief that I can deal with the shit life throws at me and that I can take joy simply in the fact I’m here. I don’t need to be perfect: cars crash. But crashing cars makes for a damned good story.

I firmly believe now that I can feel what I feel, be it sadness or anxiety or courage or happiness or hunger, without shame. That doesn’t always happen, but it’s what I believe. I believe that I can have goals and go for them. Again, that’s not always what happens, and I still break again and again, but it’s what I believe. And I believe not only in the fantastic heroism of people I dearly love, but also that everyone can and should be their own hero.

Creating a narrative of victimhood is not how I will get stronger; it reinforces notions of dependency and shame. However, creating a narrative of resiliency will transform threats into challenges.

The fact is we don’t need an eating disorder or substances or self-harm or whatever it is that sinks your boat to offer consolation. We don’t need to feel shite about ourselves or to constantly worry in order to feel like we’re in control of ourselves and of the demands put upon our lives. For one thing, we’re not in control.

 

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don’t let this tough talk fool you. this is legitimately me when I’m down: sitting in a puddle quoting Dostoevsky because I’m a dramatic little shit. But these days I’m pretty good at getting out of the puddles.

 

Moreover, we women in particular need to fight back against everything that tries to make us objects to the purported heroism or desire of others. This is unhealthy for every party, and it cuts us off from doing what we love. It stops us from becoming the kind of women who love fiercely, tenderly, and unapologetically.

Be your own damn hero: pursue what you love, for this is beautiful. May you desire and be desired by those who are also their own damn heroes.

We will never be perfect or ‘enough’, but even Wonder Woman got captured in, like, every episode.

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*Insulting to everyone involved because a) it paints men as two-dimensional horny dogs b) it supposes women are too good and angelic to not also occasionally shallow and two-dimensional and c) rather than trying to foster an environment of unconditional mutual respect and conditional mutual lustfulness, it paints men and women as eternally at odds. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the LGBT+ community.

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mental health, mountains, personal journeys, Uncategorized

how I’m learning to use my panic attacks for good

I want to talk to you about how I’ve learned to deal with panic attacks and anxiety.  To do this, I’m going to describe what a panic attack feels like. Then, I’m going to talk about, you know, fear in general. These days I’m healthier, braver, and a lot less afraid–thanks to ever so much help, medicine, love and unabashed fun.

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photo by Maryam. Me “dancing” while sorting out our Skye hillwalking roadtrip stuff on the side of the road

But panic attacks? They completely and utterly suck. I’m not describing them to complain or garner sympathy; I’m describing them so anyone struggling knows I’ve also been there. If you know someone struggling, hopefully this gives you a bit of an insider’s perspective.

The day usually starts off with a vague but unshakable sense of unease. Nervousness. Edginess. Maybe a bit of crankiness. I don’t really know why, but it’s there–a low, persistent hum.

Then, all at once the pressure and fear build and I feel an increasing sense of dread. Something terrible is going to happen, I’m convinced. I don’t know why I’m panicking so much, but I’m confused and disoriented.

Everything around me feels like a threat and I feel like I’m probably going to get hurt, or someone I care about is going to be badly hurt, or that I’m going to die. The physical sensations of fear overwhelm me; my hands can’t stop shaking and my legs feel very weak; my heart pounds. Sounds and lights are oppressively lurid.

My chest tightens and I can’t breathe. Sometimes this suffocating feeling last just for a minute as the panic attack peaks. Sometimes, especially if I start sobbing, I ebb back into that unease and the shaking, only for waves of panic to peak several times over. I need things to be quiet and I need to be alone to calm myself down.

Last year, these panic attacks happened between once and several times a day, usually in the mornings.  I would need lots of extra sleep each night just to recover from the stupid amounts of adrenaline. Now, they only happen anywhere between once a month and once a week. In short: better, but still a difficulty.

I used to feel like a total idiot for dealing with panic attacks. I go to university on another continent and love hitch-hiking and narrow ridges, but I become terrified for no reason whatsoever? What kind of sense does that make?

They only really improved markedly when a realization hit me about five months ago: “As someone who’d love to do first ascents and lots of anthropology fieldwork, I’m being routinely confronted with inordinate amounts of fear. This sucks, but it also means I have a unique opportunity to get good at dealing with fear in one of its worst forms.”

See, I believe that many of our problems as humans boil down to the fact that we don’t often take the time to slow down and try to define things carefully. “What do I mean by that? What’s fear, anyway?”

Obviously, many things will mean many different things for different people. But if you don’t ask what you mean by fear, happiness, love, joy, challenge, or pain, chances are you’ll miss out on a chance to live in a healthier way.

I missed out for years with fear, until I asked I changed my mindset and asked that question.

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a photo I took when on my own on the Isle of Arran, looking out towards Kintyre

I also then realised that, on mountains, I rarely saw fear as helpful. If I was in a shit situation, getting all worried was just going to make my thought process shakier, so I literally just decided to not be afraid. Instead, I just tried to be “rational” in a fit of radical anti-anxiety. This led to sometimes suppressing legitimate fear to an unhealthy extent–after all, panic attacks were way worse, right?

However, when I sat down and tried to define fear, this is what I got: “Fear is an emotional, physical, and instinctual response to perceived threats in one’s environment. It often expresses information or assumptions one would otherwise overlook.” Simple as that.

This changed things. It meant that I could accept fear as a legitimate feeling that I could reflectively examine. I didn’t need to feel ashamed. After all, fear was just telling me a little more about what it thought it saw or what my assumptions were. If my assumptions were wrong, I could be grateful that fear pointed that out. If fear brought accurate information to the surface, all the better.

In other words, my definition never pretends that I don’t feel fear or shoves it out of mind. Fear either gives me the opportunity to change my assumptions or to build common sense. Most importantly, this definition reminds me that I’m responsible for dealing with my own fear. Only I can ask myself what I see as a threat. And only I can change how I see the world.

This totally altered the game for me. It might not be the perfect definition (if such a thing exists), but it’s a powerful one.

I didn’t realise how radically this simple act of defining “fear” would completely change my life. Not only has it drastically reduced my panic attacks, but it has helped me make smarter decisions on ridges, be less nervous for first dates or job interviews, be bolder and happier around strangers, and not stress the small stuff so much. It takes some work to put it into practice, but doing so is a hell of a lot easier than dealing with panic attacks.

Please, if you have someone in your life dealing with panic attacks or anxiety, show them patience. Hell is dancing inside their head and lacing their ribs together. The last thing they need is extra pressure or to feel like an idiot for struggling with legitimate mental health issues. Tell them you believe in them–that you know they’re stronger and more resilient than they think, and that life and adventure is out there. Above all, show them love. Dostoevsky once said that love is the opposite of fear, which is a topic for another time and another post.

 

 

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mental health, mountains, Scotland, Uncategorized

when the mountains kept me here

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ridges are fun. Especially if you’ve just come up the Devil’s Punchbowl on the Isle of Arran in total cloud.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post on a hillwalking facebook group in the hope it would help someone who’s going through mental health issues or addictions. I got an overwhelming number of responses, messages, and stories, which inspired me to take a stab at blogging again. It’s revised here in the hope that maybe it can reach a few more people.

 

Over the past eleven years or so, I’ve struggled off and on with a variety of disordered eating behaviours, and the past five years or so have been marked by depression and panic attack disorder. It all came to a head a year ago when I narrowly avoided suicide.

One of the few things that stopped more or more lethal attempts was, quite simply, that there were lots more munros* to climb. I would eat well for the munros; I would wake up thinking about munros.

Whilst walking, I got a hit of something I now recognise very easily as pure and simple joy.

But for me, in what I now think of as the Grey Cloud (because it’s not nearly as awesome as as whiteout), I couldn’t quite recognise it as joy that I could feasibly feel in my everyday life. I just knew it was Something. I was very lost, but I could navigate a ridge in cloud.

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Me, very much having fun on munro called Lochnagar and Not Dead, Not Starved and actually rather flexible.

Fast forward a year and through lots of help, through medicine (thank God for medicine, and fuck the stigma) and therapy and incredibly supportive family and friends. Fast forward through the good fortune to have that much support. A few weeks ago, after a few months largely consisting of hillwalking and camping and solo hitchhiking and lots of ferries, I was on the Isle of Rum, wild camping very happily on my own. I made friends with the ponies. I wasn’t weighed down by the pressures of dark thoughts that used to descend whenever I stopped moving. The next day, I would tackle the Rum Cuillin Traverse. And I would feel something more powerfully than I’d ever felt before: gratitude (also sunburn). For this body, that I’ve starved and binge-stuffed and abused, but now can tackle 1900+ metre days and 40k if I ask it to. For this mind, which is now happy and healthy and sweary and rather lecherous and bloody stubborn. For the fact that I now feel totally safe by myself and that I enjoy my own childish sense of humor and stupidly energetic company far too much. For Scotland, seeing as it kept me on this planet with its ridges and summits.

Scotland kept me on this planet with its ridges and summits

A week later, however, I turned back from a walk after about a kilometer and only the tiniest bit of ascent. I don’t know if it was a fellow gardener remarking too often on how much I ate (because I climb loads of hills, bitch?) or if it was worry for my mother’s surgery or whatever, but bad eating habits slipped back in without my knowing. Over three days I ate maybe 2000kcal total, and that’s with lots of moving around. I was at the base of Stob Ban in the morning—a munro I saw and lusted after a year ago from the Ring of Steall—and I just couldn’t do it. My legs, which on a gym day can squat 120kilos 30 times in a row if I so choose, were impossibly weak. My head hurt. I had a nasty metallic taste in my mouth. What normally took me 15 minutes had taken me an hour and a half. When my legs buckled, I knew it was stupid to keep going. But more than anything, I was pissed. I wanted Stob Ban like some women want Ryan Gosling (I just don’t see it, soz), but it just wasn’t happening.

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me (red jacket) on enjoying the Five Sisters of Kintail during one of the hardest times

Recovering from mental health problems and/or addiction is not easy. It is not straightforward. But yall, there are hills. There is that wild gratitude (on sunny days, at least), that breathlessness as you reach the summit. Sometimes you’ve just got to fight it as tactically as you would (should) plan an expedition, and that’s okay. But when I turned back from Stob Ban, I knew that these habits just had to go. There are too many hills. I am not going back to that dark place, and I am not letting those habits eat me alive. They tell you they’ll make your problems smaller but really—and I’m telling you this with every ounce of belief I have—they just devour your sense of self and make joy a stranger. You don’t need to make your problems smaller, not with substances or food or lack thereof. You’re enough to fight them now, as they are, no matter how scary they look. You can’t choose your challenges, but you can choose your joys and you can choose life for yourself. You can choose to fight for the mountains.

Please choose with me, pack some goddamn chocolate and never turn back.

 

*mountains in Scotland above 913m or 3,000″

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