Category Archives: Blog

ENVR 101: Introduction to the Woods

bridge
my initial stop.

Today, I had an itch. Over spring break, at home, I usually make an effort to take a walk through the woods near my house. I grab a walking stick and pretend I am a hobbit-girl, inspecting the surroundings. After spending a vacation largely on the couch churning out job applications, I returned to Norton this afternoon and realized that my trekking tradition had slipped my mind.

some good handstones I found, and one particularly satisfying pinecone.

I don’t usually go alone. Char comes with, or my dad, and last year I dragged Grace. After unpacking, saying goodbye to my grandmother, mother, and sister (a strange little generational nesting doll), and accidentally falling asleep for half an hour, I shot awake and muttered to myself that I needed to get outside. Amaya was working on some wretched Stenger project. Grace was making phone calls. So I shoved on a baseball cap and began my solitary amble down Howard.

lo! a clearing!

Usually I’m happy doing a lap or two around the Dimple, maybe walking around the old Science Center if I’m feeling ambitious, One of the highlights of walking, for me, is seeing and being seen. But this was a quiet hour, on a quiet day, before campus refilled again. More alone than I thought, I was wont to take an unexpected turn onto a bridge near Lot 8, that I had often in passing but toward which I had never ventured.

some absolutely perfect moss enveloping the ground in its lively embrace.

And there I was. In the woods. I’d often heard people talking about going into the Wheaton Woods and exploring, in varied states of sobriety. But I had never been. There are several Wheaton places I have never entered: the Admissions Office, the Field House, Hebe Hall, the Old Observatory. There are not reasons for me to be in those places, nor was there a real reason for me to be in the Wheaton Woods. I don’t know why I haven’t made reasons. So I went.

reminded me of: tentacles, a flower, perhaps outstretched arms?

I like having something in the palm of my hand — when I was a child, it was anything I could grab. It often was a substance that could wreak havoc. See: the Silly Putty incident of 1998. I learned my lesson after losing a chunk of hair to that tantalizing goo. I began picking up stones.  I like slightly oblong, gray ones best. The best ones are found at the beach; I am partial to ones from the sands at home. I remained squat at the foot of the first bridge for some time this afternoon inspecting several specimens and put a few in my pockets. I was surprised at how easily engaged I was. I thought, again, of Grace, having just returned from a journey to Death Valley with her advanced geology seminar. I dug my fingers into the dirt and thought for a while about how seldom I tend to look down when I walk. I am barely conscious of the world around me if I have a destination, let alone the world below.

I was so happy in the moment I felt it deserved documentation.

Having never been in the Wheaton Woods before, I did not notice a clear path running a little further off from where I started, but instead made my way through a thorny path to a clearing. Green things were making their way out of the ground, like Persephone to her mother at the onset of spring. This was perhaps more rewarding than immediately finding the path. Spring has been quick to tease us, blowing warm air into our faces, so our eyelids flutter with hope, but then slapping us with unexpected snow and iced over walkways. There are remnants of this in the Woods. Some dead-leaf paths are still a little slick with ice, and the air bites a bit if the sun is behind a tree, but I know now that spring is coming. I am certain of it, and this brought renewed faith to my movement.

I don’t know who built these bridges but I like them quite a bit.

The most remarkable thing I found all afternoon was perhaps a very large felled tree. I don’t know how long it’s been in its current position (I suppose there’s someone on campus who’d know). I sat on it for a long, long while and enjoyed the last bits of today’s sunshine. For a moment I wished I had brought my notebook and a pen, but I think it was better, this first moment of discovery, to have some time with my thoughts. I think I need to find myself in awe of nature more often. It did wonders for the senses. I felt myself breathing more easily, remembering that I was just one working gear in this universe.

I hopped off after a time and stood gazing into the open maw of the tree’s roots. It was strange to think about — how this massive organism was once so deeply embedded in the ground and was felled by another force of nature, and how even things no longer growing from the ground still house life. There are metaphors peeking their way out of there. I think I would like to spend more time in trees.

I walked on a more trodden path for a time longer, but not so long as to be out after sunset. I like the Woods because I was still able to hear the bell joyously chiming atop Emerson on the hour. A good primer for the beginner outdoorsman. Like a string tied to my finger, connecting me to a place I know better. Perhaps even further symbolic that the song the bells play is the tune of my doorbell at home in Connecticut. I kept walking, and the path ended, at another clearing. A different type — an athletic field. One I hadn’t seen before. I looked puzzledly at a lazy pickup soccer game, then turned and went back, making a note to consult a map on my return home. (I did, apparently it is the new turf field. Strange that the end of my walk ended at the object of conservationist protest.)

And so I left the Woods, walking on a long bridge to the real path out, behind Beard. This was my first venture out, but it will not be my last. I would like to find out about the bridges, and the tree, and the creek. And I think next time, I’ll pack a lunch.

I’m 9 Today

I found this song while rooting through the deep Web tonight in search of procrastination. I don’t think I was really searching; time-wasting always just seems to find me. Like some twisted game of hide-and-seek.

I often find myself in strange places online. I have become good at foraging and finding things. I collect, I document, maybe even hoard. I, with age, have begun to lean more methodical than sloppy. I take my time with things. I try to read every page as opposed to just skimming the book. In one such corner, I clicked a link, and came across this song, by experimental Icelandic group múm. Soft chime sounds reminded me of a song by Caribou that I used to listen to a lot in high school (“Crayon“) but it made me think a lot about…doing (as that wistful type of music tends to do).

close-up of brain coral, or Diploria labyrinthiformis. is it a maze? can I find my way out?

I’ve had a rough week. Month? Year? I think I can say year; it hasn’t been long. In the Gregorian sense, anyway. Regardless: the week has been rough. Obligations and busy hands have allowed distraction but coils in the brain coral come loose every now and again, and I mope. It is possible that I will someday laugh about my social crimes of passion and general toe-stubs in the grand scheme of things. It is possible that I may not. I hope the former is true. It proves difficult to move on with things if I think that I someday won’t.

I don’t think it is good to sand current roughness without proper thought, but I have been trying to think about the future. The current elephant in my dorm room is more Hellenic. Jupiter continues its path through my fourth house, bringing me ever closer to age twenty (I totally Googled “astrology forecast” to find that out, by the way).

The last time I got a new number on my big ticker was the fourth grade, and the big thing that year was switching schools and getting my ears pierced. Twenty heralds little official change or fanfare. I am determined to make that not the case.

I have been making a considerable amount of art as of late. I have been writing a lot, and as a result, put out a collection of poetry in which I take a great amount of pride. I’m directing and producing a theatrical production with no help from the college. I’ve performed in public and I even tried my hand at painting. But it somehow feels…incomplete. The world in which I am dropping myself is insular. I can predict the general reactions I will get from any given thing I do.

So what does a new layer provide? Just extra baggage?

I speak often, with a sprinkle of jest, on how one of my favorite (pseudo) genres of literature is “short stories I read in middle school that twisted my brain.” Among those: Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, and, perhaps the least macabre, Sandra Cisneros’ Eleven. Please read Eleven. I understand that the PDF linked is from a children’s textbook and has certain vocabulary words like “rattling” and “itchy” highlighted, but I read that story in that same year of switching schools and I still think it’s beautiful. If you won’t read it, my favorite passage:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

You don’t feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve. That’s the way it is.

Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box.

I will turn twenty and feel nothing more than weight unless I make it my job to air out the layers.

While “I’m 9 Today” sounds a little bit like music in some sort of twee movie in which a ragamuffin white couple falls in love, it did make me want to close my computer and run outside. My parents, when I was first getting the hang of bipedalism, would place me in the middle of the field in a local park and say “RUN!” which I would do until I got tired out. I want to apply this philosophy. I want to explore the nooks and crannies of this place I inhabit like melting butter; I want to talk long walks and enjoy my own company; I want to explore the Wheaton Woods and camp for the first time! I want to learn to cook and eat strange foods with my friends. I want to cry in front of more people but drop that idea that showing my worst self to others is being close to them. I want to love the person I am around others but mostly the person I am myself.

I am planning my new decade’s resolution. I would like to predict less. I don’t want to walk on beaten paths. I want to pick my way across this sprawling Earth and not know where the next bump in the road will be, or what vista lies behind the next hill I crest. I want to be unafraid to inhabit all of my parts.

I want to eschew that traditional resolution. I want to smile at not possibilities of tomorrow, but possibilities of today.

I am twenty at the top of the hill and I am nine tapping my pencil and I am fifteen face down on my floor and I am two, running, running, until God knows when and to God knows what and where.

Nice Kick Pelé, or, How I Learned to Stop Playing Town Sports and Question Empty Praise

There is a space in almost every modern American attic, or shed, or even storage unit, where objects of childhood memorabilia are kept. In my mother’s house, these talismans of pseudo-success sit rusting in my sister’s closet surrounded by letters to the Tooth Fairy asking for more money, their chipping metallic paint glinting with some sort of fool’s-gold-glory. I speak of course, of participant trophies.

swing and a miss.

I have countless Made-in-China trophies Krazy-Glued atop faux-marble pedestals, from every town sport that was available in Darien, Connecticut from 1998 to 2006. I have T-ball, baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, swimming, field hockey, cross-country, gymnastics, you name it. I even have a participant award for running the mile in gym class, at a wheezing, cramping, foaming-at-the-mouth ten minutes—slower than the girl with asthma. My two favorite golden idols of mediocrity lie wrapped in many layers of green “Participant” ribbons from elementary school Field Days that literally say “We Are All Winners.” Swaddled in these ribbons, like the Christ Child himself in the manger, lies a lacrosse trophy. I keep this one separate only because of the story behind it. On a cool day in the third grade, I walked onto the field for the first practice, got hit in the head three times in twenty minutes, proceeded to tell my orange-wedge and Gatorade-wielding mother that I would “come back when everybody else got better,” and skipped off to wait in the minivan for the remainder of the practice. The other trophy is from my short stint on the swim team. It is emblazoned with the epithet “TEAM SPIRIT AWARD 2003,” with my name spelled incorrectly below it. I suppose “Team Spirit” was the only thing I had going for me, because I was only allowed to swim in exhibition heats, which didn’t count toward the final team score. I distinctly recall mixed feelings.

oh, Christ.

Part of me knew organized sports were not my forte —when I was picking clover in the outfield, or blatantly wiggling a loose tooth during a basketball game, or even hacking up lactic acid during my final cross-country race in my freshman year of high school. A large portion of my still-developing frontal cortex knew I was not going to be the next Mia Hamm as I hit the soccer ball into my face with my own knee during a drill. At age three, I would plan elaborate escape methods from tennis practice to leap into my babysitter’s arms. In retrospect, I have often wondered: why did I keep playing sports? And then I remember the trophies. The varsity letter. Even the “Round Robin Indoor Tennis Halloween Costume Contest,” from which I won a gift card. So I continued to play sports, until I sold my soul to my high school’s theatrical productions. Even then, I received commemorative plaques for my “Commitment to the Department!” American children are constantly awarded and showered with empty praise.

The barrage of awards that today’s children are given is astounding. I may have just received them for participation in sports, but if a child does so much as write his own name he’s given something. In Michael Sigman’s Huffington Post article “When Everyone Gets a Trophy, No One Wins,” he mentions an elementary school where every child is given an “Honor Student” distinction. He also provides a somewhat shocking statistic about today’s young scholars: A’s are now given to forty-three percent of college students. An A used to mean something well above average, but now it seems as if the A is just there for the taking, with little concern for effort. It seems as if one could just buy an A like one could buy a participant trophy online with a quick Google search. The A matters so little and success is so ordinary now that the reward just ends up in the trash. But today’s young people are still given a pat on the head for less-than-excellent work. Who started the thought process? Who decided that my generation was so feeble and self-conscious that we needed validation for every single thing that we did?

In order to answer this, one should begin at the source. The term “soccer mom” came into widespread use during the beginning of my childhood, in the 90s: more specifically, during the 1996 Presidential election. “Soccer mom” has made its way to Wikipedia and is described as: “a married middle-class woman who lives in the suburbs and has school age children,” “busy or overburdened and driving a minivan or SUV,” “putting the interests of her family, and most importantly her children, ahead of her own.” The situation sounds frighteningly familiar to me. What follows is a profile of my mother during the time of my incredible athleticism: big white house forty-five minutes outside of New York, Wall Street husband, set of twins, shiny blue 1998 Chrysler Minivan, Women’s Circle, Newcomers, Gourmet Club, and an abandoned vice presidency at a high-profile advertising agency. There are too many similarities to be ignored. My mother even coached my sister’s town field hockey team for a season, in a matching blueberry tracksuit. I never thought of myself as being the product of a (gag) soccer mom, but it seems to have been an integral part of my idyllic, Stepford-esque childhood.

However, when my parents divorced and my mother went back to work full-time, I stopped playing sports. I was around fourteen, and a inevitable “rebellious” phase was beginning to happen anyway. These small rebellions usually consisted of me lying face down on my bedroom floor listening to Disintegration by the Cure or by staying up after midnight. Tangent aside: this leads me to wonder if the soccer mom mentality and the praise of mediocrity are mutually exclusive. Do children who are under the constant scrutiny of their parents seek the participant trophy as a sort of offering to appease them? Do the parents of these children think that they gain points every time their child is awarded for the mundane? That they’ll become aMommyblogger Level 32, or that they’ll have to fight enemy Helicopter Parents, Tekken style? I know the darkness well. I have seen these mothers of the front in action. Suburban Connecticut is a petri dish for these types, where mutations in the code come to die. They are slowly overwhelmed by their pastoral lives, and are eventually transformed into chauffeurs for their children. My mother is no longer that type of parent, so I now find it easier to gaze objectively upon the American culture’s bizarre definition of self-esteem and validation.

American parents, on the whole, are incredibly invested in their children’s lives. Perhaps the soccer mom mentality is just their fear of their children being hurt. This fear seems like a recent development. I question now whether parents carry out these rituals of rewarding because they are trying to protect their children, or perhaps themselves. What mother wants to be scrutinized by the others at Women’s Circle over coffee and donuts because she’s not raising her kids to the standard? The answer, for many people, is to lower it, to account for parents’ fears of somehow fudging their child-rearing. I feel as if parents have little clue as to how this effects their children’s self-perception. These poor and helpless children are placed on deceiving pedestals. They may seem tall from the bottom, but from the top, the adults don’t look so small, and it’s hard for the child elevated to an improper level of false pride perpetuated by white lies to not feel the hand of their parent struggling to keep them on the pedestal itself. Parents have little faith in their children’s ability to bounce back. In past decades, children were treated more gruffly. If they failed, they were told to get up, dust themselves off, and try again. There were no consolation prizes. Awarding every hallmark of progress is not necessary. At the end of the T-ball season, I didn’t want a trophy. I just wanted to hang out with my friends and eat a Firecracker Popsicle. I think that the trophy can be used to motivate, like the proverbial “hanging carrot.” The award for extraordinary achievement should be given to the truly deserving. Maybe I would have practiced my soccer drills at home had this been the case. The ivory towers and pedestals that parents build for their children and then place them in are essentially flawed. Sure, there is “success,” but success and achievement are not real unless they are earned. Children can be put on a pedestal, but they should climb up onto it themselves.

The staving off of cultural apathy

giant-squid-pizza
I Googled “giant squid pizza” to GREAT YIELD

I am almost twenty, and therefore, just at the tail-end of that nebulous concept of “Generation Y.” We millenials see boredom in a different context than our elders and ancestors. The Internet, that beautiful monster with far-extending tentacles, was no giant squid in 1994, the year I was born, but its existence was prominent enough that I have not known a world without it. People in Santa Cruz could order for delivery on the Pizza Hut website starting that year! Is that not incredible? I am still in awe of this fact, but others are less so, now that it has become ordinary.

There is this pervasive culture of apathy that I am only just beginning to notice. Perhaps because it exists on the campus of my college. I am constantly baffled by this. One would think that if someone (or someone’s parents) is paying staggering amounts of money to enroll, that they would want to be involved in everything possible. This, surprisingly, is not the case. Every time I meet a new person (which is not often — Wheaton boasts ~1600 students), they ask me what I do, and I end up with a chanted litany of classes and outside activities. I am lucky if I meet someone that even takes four classes.

Sidenote: as a first year student, I was told by my preceptors (freshman peer advisors) to follow the “rule of seven,” being four classes and three “others.” I have since completely eschewed this rule. It is probably why I have become a preceptor.

The other symptom of cultural apathy I have observed is just lack of doing. I am all for complaint. I am a noted whiner. But the general sense of unhappiness without action I feel whenever an issue comes up is almost overwhelming.

I don’t know why I think about this so much. I think it may have been prompted by a short series of events over the past two days. On Wednesday night, there was a screening of the Buster Keaton film The General in the Chapel with live, improvised organ music from a visiting artist. I decided to go simply out of interest. There was a smattering of people there, mostly from academic obligations.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was a unique and entertaining experience! And I know others there did as well, even though they may have gone in without that expectation.

But you can’t know until you try.  Or make, or do.

A friend, Emily Stoddard, sidled up to me this afternoon after I had been having a rough morning, and told me she was happy to see me at the screening the previous night. She said she didn’t know anyone else had gone voluntarily. And I shouted “YES! THANK YOU!” without meaning to, at a volume that probably alarmed others orbiting the Dimple.

In times of great stress I am prone to forgetting that I do, indeed, have a community of passionate individuals. I am lucky, and remember this in shards that I find when the light hits them just right. The cast of The Vagina Monologues (which I am directing and producing, which goes up next week) is doing things because they feel moved. Every program of which I am a member is based on motivation.

I encourage others to make things to make things, to do things to have tried.

Louis C.K. once said:

As humans, we waste the shit out of our words. It’s sad. We use words like “awesome” and “wonderful” like they’re candy. It was awesome? Really? It inspired awe? It was wonderful? Are you serious? It was full of wonder? You use the word “amazing” to describe a goddamn sandwich at Wendy’s. What’s going to happen on your wedding day, or when your first child is born? How will you describe it? You already wasted “amazing” on a fucking sandwich.

We use the word awesome so frequently without making our experiences worthy of such a term. My perspective on this is that we have to work to make our everyday mundanity deserving of these modifiers. Try to live in awe. Be amazed by yourself and of others, and of what we are capable.