anthropology, mountains, personal journeys, travel & adventure

what kayaks, alpacas, and flowers have taught me: learning from ‘odd’ jobs

During university summers, I worked a lot of jobs, some odder than others. I worked at a kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard rental facility; I babysat and tutored; I gardened and worked at an alpaca farm. Whilst at university, I lead hikes and served for two years as a class representative. In the year or so since graduating, I’ve worked at GoApe (a high ropes course and zipline facility), tutored extensively, taught piano, cared for horses, and worked at a greenhouse and flower farm.

Sometimes it’s intimidating to think of where I am, where others are around me, and where I’d like to be. I think of my dreams of being a writer, researcher, and explorer (basically, an anthropologist with a mountain problem) and wonder how I’ll get there. I see others my age doing crazy, scary shit like getting desk jobs (not knocking desk jobs). Life can be quite strange, can’t it?

As I’ve said before here, my life has proven to be a little nonlinear lately, but it’s given me so much joy and brought me some of the most treasured people in my life. I think it’s also easy, as humans, to look around and label circumstances as somehow disadvantageous to our goals. But honestly?

Alpacas taught me a lot, namely that animals built for cold mountain weather are pretty needy in hot, humid Pennsylvania summers. In all seriousness, they also taught me about herd dynamics, about how animals build their own social networks and power structures, about managing a lot of animals. Some kind redneck gave me a two-minute lesson on how to drive a quad without breaks with a trailer behind it through the woods, and I learned it didn’t kill me.

Working at a kayak rental facility gave me the opportunity to learn to kayak, canoe, and paddleboard. It showed me many sides of working with the public: the frightened children, the rude customers, the customers who beamed kindness. It showed me how differently people can perceive a certain activity and how many different assumptions people can make about each other. I learned to watch people there, to try to understand where they were coming from and how best to help them.

Working 11 or 12 hour days in summer heat between jobs paired with living in Scotland the rest of the year, I learned a thing or two about tolerating physical discomfort. I learned that discomfort or inconvenience often produces memories, joy.

‘An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered’ — G. K. Chesterton

Horses showed me unconditional irritation or unconditional affection. They taught me how to be assertive with an animal ten times my size and gave me lessons in medicine. I learned that working in subzero temperatures in a barn isn’t the worst thing in the world and can actually be quite enjoyable. Again, discomfort can lead to some crystal-clear memories.

Guiding hikes and mountaineering on my own in Scotland showed me a great deal in terms of camping, wilderness first aid, navigation, and so much more. It kept me on this planet during the hardest time of my life and gave me some of the best friendships and conversations I could have hoped for. It took me from not knowing how to read a map to tackling some of the most challenging ridges in the UK on my own or with a friend.

Tutoring lead me into hours upon hours of researching child psychology, the philosophy of education, and teaching models. I read countless books and articles about the Montessori method, Charlotte Mason, Classical Education, and Social Thinking. I worked hard to make my hours of lessons for homeschool kids fun, challenging, and always creatively joyous. This challenged me a lot: I had to understand how each child learn, pay attention to their needs and moods, and be open to wildly different personalities and learning styles.

GoApe helped me learn how to coach others through their fears and, very practically, set rescue systems at height.

Working at a flower farm and greenhouse has brought its own unique joys, from learning the name of so many new plants and flowers to watching the everyday workings of a family-run business. I’ve been able to ask so many questions and, as someone who aspires to live at least mostly off-grid at some point in my life, the knowledge it’s given me is invaluable.

And now I step back and think: I want to be a writer, researcher, and explorer. I want to work largely with indigenous circumpolar peoples, to conduct personal and interpersonal research in taxing, unfamiliar environments. My jobs have taught me, in a way academia never could, adaptability to different personalities, worldviews, and tasks; the ability to withstand physically uncomfortable or taxing environments; and assertiveness, endurance, and self-sufficiency.

The University of St Andrews gave me an education, but these jobs gave me tools that I feel will help me put that education to good use.

Maybe you haven’t worked what you think are the ‘perfect’ or ‘optimal’ jobs or internships. Maybe it’s easy to compare yourself to others or look at what others have accomplished. But everyone, no matter this circumstance, will do the human thing and catalogue their disadvantages. Let me ask you, though: what are the advantages? What are you learning right this second? How is this helping you love yourself and others more fully? How is this helping you become the person who will enjoy achieving your goals, rather than just hurtling towards them?

Your adventure isn’t around the corner; you might already be well on your way.

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mountains, poetry, Scotland, travel & adventure

the hebrides

Last summer, I spent a little over two weeks living and gardening on the Isle of Canna, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, I also enjoyed a traverse of the Rum Cuillins plus a little extra, a bright and sunny day which gave me over 1900m of ascent and 20 miles when I’d finished my fun. These two islands are part of the bigger group of Scottish isles that make up the Hebrides, and these islands haven’t left me yet. Here is something I wrote about them months after my experience there, plus some shitty phone pictures. 

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chasing summits and miles on the Isle of Rum: my Rum Cuillin Traverse of last summer

the gods hid in those islands—

between the scheduled ferry trips—

between mainland and empty Atlantic—

they hid in the rocks that crumbled into surf

they hid in the wool of sheep caught on brambles

they hid in me as I plunged, naked,

into the clear cold of the vein-blue sea

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the Isle of Canna

I could taste them in the punishing rain

but I could never quite see them

they never told me their names

they denied my prayers, they laughed

at my hymns and pleas—and why should

a naked traveller splashing in salty shallows

be allowed even to grovel before

the hidden gods? hush—remember,

here be monsters—

they feed on secrets.

 

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the Isle of Canna

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love, personal journeys, Scotland, travel & adventure

twists, turns, and a love story

I don’t often share everyday details of love, family, and friendship here on this blog, but I feel like I should tell the story of Nick and me–simply because it’s a good one and has contributed to so many of my recent thoughts and adventures.

We met on Tinder, of all places. I was about to delete my account given the state of the average American male, while Nick’s friends had just talked him into making an account. I was his first match, and two days later we met up for dinner. I’d just finished work at the stable and I wasn’t sure about going to meet this stranger, but I went.

It was, quite simply, the best conversation I’d had in months. He kissed me in the parking lot, we parted ways, and, like a goon, I couldn’t stop smiling.

We met up two days later, then the day after that (Valentine’s Day), then the day after that. The day after Valentine’s Day, he drove out to rescue me when my car died and I was stranded. I got him into healthy(ish) eating; he got me into rappelling. The relationship unfolded from there like a river unfolding into itself: climbing, hiking, camping, kayaking, bad decisions and hilarious adventures.

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Nick and I climbing at McConnells Mills the day before I left for the UK

Then, on April 1st, I left to guide a family for whom I tutored around England and Scotland for several weeks. All of a sudden, a place I had wanted to leave for months–Pittsburgh–felt so difficult to leave. No matter how I happy I was to be back in the UK and to see my dearest friends, I was continually surprised by how much I missed this recent stranger.

That UK trip was full of surprises. I frequented an awesome climbing gym while in London, got horrendously sick (perk of working with small children), and then my parents kicked me out because I’d left my room messier than they’d wanted. This sent me reeling–it was my parent’s home, of course, and it was their decision, but it did leave me feeling incredibly stressed and homeless. The tutoring family’s grandmother passed away while we were in Scotland, which meant they decided to go home early. Plans I had with my UK friends fell through given the rather drastic logistical and financial changes that had just hit me. I felt unprepared, childish.

In spite of this, I was fortunately able to make the most of my time in Scotland and St Andrews. I ceilidhed with the hillwalking club, helped friends with dissertations, had coffee and dinner with my practically-a-sister friend Antonia, laughed and gossiped with Maryam, enjoyed my favourite coffee shop, attacked Irma with a hug, jumped off the pier, ran through Glen Shee, and more. But then I had to go home. This time, home meant going back to Nick and his family.

On one hand, it was scary to move in with someone I’d only known in-person for six weeks. It seemed a little mad, even for me. But underneath all the confusion, I felt a sense of peace and excitement that didn’t make sense given outside circumstances. I already knew I loved Nick. He felt like home for me, and his family soon came to feel like home for me as well. I started doing the family gardening (commandeering the entire yard). I changed summer jobs from high ropes course instructor to farm and greenhouse worker while the tutoring season was at a bit of a lull.

Meanwhile, Nick and I kept climbing, kayaking, and camping. It was ropeswing and swimming season all at once, and I went to my first music festival. My life suddenly brimmed with new things in a place that had once seemed a little mundane. Sometimes it was overwhelming. Often, it was exciting. But I always felt that, in spite of the craziness of the past few months, I was on the right path.

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back in my favorite St Andrews coffee shop, Taste, and sleeping on the sofa like my old self. photo by ILinca

I don’t know what the future will bring. It’s been a crazy few months, but I do know this: I have an acceptance to the University of Glasgow’s Celtic, Pictish, and Viking Archaeology Master’s Programme, which I’m deferring until 2019. I have an idea of how I want to combine archaeology and anthropology in the future. I have someone with whom to explore the world. I have relationships to mend with my own family, but I also have another family that has come to feel very much like my own. Lastly, I have hope that this unforeseen road will take me better places yet.

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sometimes this is about as professional and put-together as I feel. Photo from a Dublin adventure with Antonia in March, 2017.

My path isn’t looking like a straightforward undergraduate to master’s to PhD to an academic career path. But maybe a life of radical challenges is exactly what I need in order to conduct research and exploration that will have a powerful impact. These days, I’m reading anthropological articles while the bread rises, thinking about landscape theory whilst weeding in the garden, muttering Scottish Gaelic in the shower,  and thinking about Scottish mountains while I walk to the gym. I keep repeating my old mantra to myself: anthropology starts at home, no matter what home looks like. 

Beyond that, these twists and turns have opened me up to so much love. It’s shown me how little I actually control in my life. Five months ago, this new and lovely world I now inhabit didn’t exist for me. It didn’t come to me because I planned or earned it. Rather, it fell into my lap: a gift wrapped perfectly in muddy adventures.

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anthropology, culture & society, mountains, travel & adventure

I love the outdoors, but…

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Nick and I climbing at Lion’s Den, PA, with Dalton and Brooks

My boyfriend, Nick, and I have been climbing outside about thirty times this year so far and love every minute of it. Yet, each time we packed up and left, we had a decent bag of plastic wrappers, containers, etc. I’d thought a little about the whole zero-waste thing and had brushed it off as worthy but nigh-on unachievable goal. This, though, hit me differently, and we started doing clean-ups.

Then, the other day, cleaning up alongside the road where I live, I found several health foods wrappers. Organic, all-natural, great-for-the-planet wrappers, on the side of the road.

It makes me think more broadly about the outdoor recreation and health foods industry. Gear and health foods are expensive and often come from far away, thereby consuming more resources whilst simultaneously creating a ‘healthy, outdoorsy’ experience that few can really afford to live up to. There’s always the next superfood or the next piece of awesome kit, isn’t there? It’s impossible to keep up. 

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swimming in the North Sea with Ayesha this past April, photo by Josh Grinham

 

This expensive ‘all-natural’ lifestyle is increasingly celebrated on social media. One doesn’t have to look far to see photos of avocados (from Mexico) and quinoa (once a traditional South American food in such demand few local people can afford it) salads being eaten on a filtered hike. I mean, I love quinoa and avocados, and beetroot and kale and cliff bars and all the other obnoxiously hipster food. It makes me feel good and I genuinely like the taste.

But, underneath all of this, we’ve unconsciously created a brand of exclusivity: not only does this ‘lifestyle brand’ exclude certain people all across the production and consumption line-up, but it also excludes a full awareness of everything that went into creating that image.

The speciality foods, the packaging waste that will long outlive us, the ill-effects on the lives of others—these are the things I don’t want to think about. I like the ease and convenience of pre-packaged food. I also like foods that make me feel better about myself.

I don’t have an answer for this. When one looks at the sheer number of landfills, of trash in the oceans, it can be disheartening. I’m tempted to veer between the extremes of giving up or becoming belligerently and self-righteously zero-waste. I don’t want to do either, but I know I have done both at different times.

Instead of an answer, I have a few questions:

What would it look like if climbers, mountaineers, hillwalkers, hikers, and backpackers bought local, in season foods and knew how to prepare them for the hills and the backcountry?

What would it look like if we all knew a thing or two more about responsible foraging?

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Nick and I enjoying camping and kayaking along the Clarion River with Dalton and Andi

 

What would it look like if a few friends got together and swapped foods they’d made themselves?

I just hope my kids and their grandkids can enjoy the crags, the hills, and the rivers I love so much. It’s not an original sentiment. But it is an honest question, and I hope someday I’ll have an honest answer.

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anthropology, culture & society, feminism, mental health, personal journeys

blubber

Here is a guest post I wrote for Women from the Blog, a wonderful site run by dear friends. Follow me there for the rest of this story. 

I was four years old and my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world.

She was much taller than me, and I felt very tiny next to her, especially when we compared feet and she tickled my toes.  I loved her hair, which was long and which I loved to watch her dry, and she had a smiling laugh, bright blue eyes and straight white teeth.  I remember being very young and showering with her and wishing, hoping that I would be like her when I grew up.  Even the water seemed to run over her skin and through her hair like it was made of magic.  She was flawless. 

I remember her reading me a book about whales.  I watched videos about them, too.  They sang in the deep, the book said.  The blubber meant dolphins and whales were more buoyant…follow me to Women from the Blog for the rest of the story. 

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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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