Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Certified: Learning to Repair Myself and the World in the Emerald City

(I've decided to write about going back to school, because, well, that's what I do. It is more than you ever wanted to know! My intention is to keep my interactions with other people generally private. Although obviously other people will be important to my experiences, I won't violate anyone's privacy. I'll only include conversations that aren't private, unless I just include my side of the conversation. Those of you who've been reading my posts for years know that I'm pretty good at keeping people anonymous unless they give me permission to write about them. The subtitle of these posts is not reality yet, but my hope is that repair, healing, and much more will come to pass.)


When the Deepwater Drilling rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico on Earth Day 2010 causing the worst environmental disaster in our country's history, I didn't know what to do. I was angry and depressed. I felt fear and horror as I watched the disaster unfold. No one seemed to know what to do. I wondered, "Where were all the smart people who can fix stuff like this?"

Of course, stuff like this should have never happened. After decades of lax regulations and a kind of legal deification of big corporations, it was happening. We couldn't deny it.

What could I do? I called the President. I called my elected officials. I begged them to do something, to stop relying on information from British Petroleum. I felt like I was watching one of those dystopian novels I had read as a teenager come to life. Like Brave New World or 1984, where the corporations are the government and if you say a lie long enough, it becomes the truth as far as anyone else was concerned.

I suddenly felt as though I had no useful skills. I'm a writer and I'm a librarian. I had written a novel in response to Hurricane Katrina. It was a beautiful novel (Ruby's Imagine) but I couldn't see that it had changed anything.

And I feel like those of us working in public libraries are on the front lines, protecting intellectual freedoms from anyone who would destroy or limit them. Unfortunately, my library wasn't very "green." They remodeled using toxic materials which caused me to become so ill I had to quit my job. I now selected books part-time from home.

Neither my skills as a writer or as a librarian felt useful at this moment. I had also been a social and environmental activist most of my life, starting when I was in elementary school trying to save killdeer nests from marauding boys. But it seemed that any skills I had acquired over the years from my many unsuccessful battles and skirmishes were also useless.

Oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of the state where I was born.

What could I do? I asked again and again.

I felt the bell jar of depression and anxiety beginning to fall.

One night I couldn't sleep. I have advocated a sea change in this country for some time. We seemed soullessly consumptive. I remembered recently being at a workshop where the facilitator figuratively shook her finger at us and told us we needed to change how we looked at the world; we needed to change our lives. (The topic isn't important to this discussion.) I grew quite irritated with her. How dare she tell me, a grown woman, how I should live my life? In that moment, I understood how other people probably felt when I began ranting about our consumer culture, the perils of capitalism, our dependence upon fossil fuels, or whatever other lecture I taken out from up my sleeve.

I didn't want to lecture anyone. It wasn't nice and it wasn't effective. I didn't want to battle any more either. It was absolutely ineffective. We couldn't sit around waiting for the government to tell us what to do. We couldn't wait for anyone to tell us what to do.

No more waiting. No more talking. How about some practical skills?

I certainly needed some.

I wanted to learn how people could live on this planet in our cities or out in the country and still be a part of the environment--not a part from it, not pariahs amongst the wild, but a part of the whole ecological community. Then I could help create places that were energy efficient and safe and healthy to human inhabitants and the surrounding environments.

I sat on the couch with my computer in front of me and began looking for places where I could learn these skills. I didn't want to get another Master's degree; I already had two. I didn't want a Ph.D.; I couldn't afford it and I wasn't interested in teaching.

In the middle of the night, I stumbled upon a nine-month certificate program in ecological planning and design in Seattle, Washington, two hundred plus miles north of where I lived. The program included electives in permaculture and food systems, another area of interest for me. (Mario and I had signed up to take a two week permaculture course in California a few months after 9/11 happened. We cancelled, deciding instead to stay closer to home. Now nine and half years later, maybe it was time to try again.)

The next morning I talked it over with Mario. If I took the program over the next year, we could probably afford it if we got a loan, unless something drastic happened to our incomes. As I talked about it, I wondered if I was crazy.

I was famous in our family for having great ideas. I was a visionary! But once I had the vision, I was often ready to move on. I enjoyed planning a party or a class or a ceremony more than I actually enjoyed the event, whatever it was.

I could go onto a work site and figure out what wasn't working or what was working inefficiently. I'd usually know how to fix it, too. But I didn't necessarily want to stay around and keep doing the day to day work.

This was a strength and a weakness with me. I was willing to try new things. Recently I had rented a room in a healing center to do Reiki and shamanic work. I loved the space, and I loved being there by myself. I enjoyed working with clients, too. But I didn't like promoting myself. I didn't like waiting around to have people come see me. I didn't like being stuck in Portland traffic. It was a three month experiment which told me a lot about what I wanted and didn't want. Some people might call that a failure; I called it a learning experience, although I was a little frustrated with myself for not making it more financially successful.

When I was young I knew I was smart; I was sure this meant I could always take care of myself. When I got sick, all that assurance went out the window. Now I knew I could easily be one of those people who ended up homeless and living on the street. Since then, I had been looking for a way to get a more steady income--more steady than intermittent writing income--without changing my beliefs about living and working sustainably.

Maybe going back to school could do that for me. But I didn't want to drain my family--Mario and me--of any more of our finances.

What if going to school was just one more way to educate me uselessly?

Mario encouraged me to go for it.

So that day and for the next couple of days, I made phone calls to the school.

First I talked with an admissions advisor. We talked about the certificates. I told her my concerns about going to school and spending all of this money and then not getting a job or any work out of it. She didn't have a real answer to that. What could she say? "I guarantee you'll find work?"

Next I told her I only want to go to school if it was a green campus. She said it was. They didn't use pesticides and they used green building practices: no-VOC paints and carpets when needed. She told me it was an old building, but they did the best they could despite that.

I then wrote to the permaculture course instructor. I told him my life history in about a page. After I sent the email, I felt embarrassed. How could I so easily tell a stranger about my life and who I was? I wasn't sure why I did it. I wanted these people to know life had not been easy for me. Illness and financial woes had taken a toll. But mostly I wanted them to know I hadn't succeeded at making anything better in the world, despite my efforts.

I didn't tell him everything, of course. I didn't say that I struggled with anxiety and depression. Didn't tell him that sometimes incessant worry possessed me like some demented neurotic demon that I couldn't shake loose no matter what I did.

I didn't usually tell anyone that.

I'd always had a touch of anxiety, even when I was a kid. When I was in my early twenties, I caught a glimpse of my diagnosis in the file on my shrink's desk: chronic depression. When I saw those two words, I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. It sounded like a life sentence: chronic depression. Chronic meant it would never go away, right?

In my mid-twenties, a doctor told me I had something called environmental illness. She told me I was essentially allergic to the world. This was devastating news. I loved the world. Now it was making me sick? I had to change everything about my life. The way I ate, drank, dressed, lived.

I stopped drinking. I began eating organic foods. I tried to lessen my stress and take time to relax, but I was in college, working nearly full time while going to school full time. I didn't know how to relax.

The diagnosis evolved over the years. What I had was now called "multiple chemical sensitivities." (This is essentially what the workers and some residents in the Gulf now have; the doctors call it tilt: toxicant induced loss of tolerance.)

I didn't like any of the diagnoses I'd gotten over the years. They all felt like a curse, a life-sentence. As I tried to protect myself from "the world," my life felt more and more constrained. Less and less joyful.

And my incessant worrying got worse, coming and going until it seemed to settle in good and hard after my mother died two and a half years ago. Maybe that was because I started eating less healthy. Maybe it was because I had also lost two very close friends two years before that. Maybe it was because of the two surgeries I had had, although they had cleared my sinuses so that I could actually breathe through my nose for the first time in nearly fifteen years.

Maybe it was because I was now in my fifties and I felt like half of my life had been spent in illness. More than half.

I didn't know why I had this chronic anxiety. Doctors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, cranio-sacral therapists, all manner of therapists, and shamans had not been able to help. It started to feel as though this unsustainable part of myself was hardwired to me and there was no way to riven it from my real self--because I was sure my real true self did not cower in fear or anxiety because she couldn't get her mind right.

In any case, after the permaculture instructor read my email (where I didn't mention my anxiety), he asked me to call him. So I did.

We talked about his permaculture class and the program at his university. I told him I had worked on many environmental projects. I had also been part of the Sanctuary movement when I lived on the coast of Oregon--on the fringes of it while I was in a peace group there. I had organized and marched against the war in Iraq. I had sued my county after they illegally sprayed pesticides in front of my house. I had fought many battles, and I was tired. He talked about cultivating resilience. With my voice shaking with tears, I said, "I feel as though I have no more resilience."

"I promise you at the end of this," he said, "you will find your resilience again."

Maybe those weren't his exact words. But they were good words. I felt better. Like maybe this was for me.

I felt like I was talking to someone who was like-minded. I realized I wanted to be around people who shared my world view again and who were willing to work for their communities. I didn't want to lead anyone anywhere or teach anyone anything. Not right now. I wanted to learn new skills. I wanted to learn to earn a living doing something meaningful.

After our conversation concluded, I filled out an online application to the graduate certificate program. Part of the application included a five page essay about who I was and why I was drawn to this program.

In the middle of the night, I also filled out a financial aid form called FAFSA. I wasn't eligible for any grants--there weren't many for graduate students--but I might be eligible for a loan.

It was strange filling out all these applications. To see once again where I'd been. Got my Bachelor of Science degree at Eastern Michigan University where my father had gotten his degree. Then my Master of Arts. I'd stayed at EMU because it was comfortable and because I got a gig as a graduate assistant teaching freshman English. I took a writing class at Michigan State University as my very last class for my Master's degree: that was when I met Mario.

I'd worked at a kitchen cabinetry place during my college years. The building used to fill up with deft spray lacquer. I'd run outside to get away from it. I thought it was toxic stuff, but my boss would get angry if I said anything about it. She said that's what they did and if I didn't like it I needed to quit.

I should have quit. I've spent many nights since wondering if working there was what damaged me.

Mario and I moved to the coast of Oregon a year after we met to make our way in the world as freelance writers. I worked at a restaurant and then ran a food co-op for a while. Both of those jobs ended badly. So I became librarian at a tiny library. Two years later, we moved to Arizona where I went to library school.

I developed terrible allergies in Tucson, along with asthma. I remembered students walking across the campus lawns as a man in a hazmat suit rode atop an herbicide spraying machine. I remembered the Catalinas turning red every evening from pollution. I couldn't wait for the year to end so we could get back to the Pacific Northwest.

Where everything got worse.

But I couldn't focus on that. That was all in the past. Going to school was a new direction. Maybe I would finally find a sustainable and healthy way to make a living. Maybe I would actually get well again. Or for the first time.

Soon enough I had an appointment with the director for June 1. She needed to interview me before I was admitted. The weather was so bad I asked if we could change it to a phone appointment. I didn't relish driving in a torrential rainstorm for four and a half hours. It was the first time in the twenty-three years that I've lived here that I've ever cancelled an appointment because of the rain.

At the appointed time, the phone rang and we began our interview. The director wanted to know why I had chosen her school. Then she talked about their view of teaching. Instructors didn't act as "sages on stages" but as "guides on the sides." Part of the purpose of the program was to teach people about effective collaboration. Group work was essential.

I told her I had had bad experiences working in groups. First there was the food co-op in Bandon, Oregon. My bosses had been the co-op board. Twelve of the most dysfunctional people I had ever met. They seemed to believe that because it was a food co-op and they believed in peace and love that everything would turn out. When one of the board members went psycho and threatened me in front of the entire board, with spit spewing, cigarette in one hand and finger poking at me with the other hand, not one of them did a thing to stop him or protest his behavior.

I later had to call the police on him, and I resigned from the co-op.

That was my most infamous experience with group work. But I'd had other experiences. The director said that we could learn as much from those bad experiences as we could from the more successful one. She suggested I write down my group experiences before beginning the program to see what I had learned. I agreed that would be a helpful exercise.

I told her I was quite willing and eager to work in groups. I wanted to learn how to collaborate more effectively. I had become somewhat of a lone wolf. I wrote alone. I did my library work alone. I had come to believe I worked better alone without all that human interaction.

She also said that working on the computer was very important. Since our classes only met once a month, we needed to keep in touch and collaborate via computers. I told her I was quite comfortable with computers and as long as the software worked on a Mac, I'd be fine.

At one point when we were talking, she said that we wouldn't see any cultural changes in our lifetime. This work we did was for the long haul. We needed to realize this to keep our sanity. I didn't argue with her, but I thought, "I don't think we have time to wait." I kept thinking of the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

When it was time for me to ask questions, I said, "I'm 54 years old and I have white hair. Am I going to be out of place?"

She told me the average student was about 36 years old. I wouldn't be out of place, but I wouldn't be part of the majority.

I could live with that.

When I got off the phone, I realized I had been accepted to the program.

I grinned and called Mario.

I was ready to begin my adventures in the Emerald City.


Will Shetterly said...


Druid Lady said...

You are such an incredible, vibrant, wonderful being. I know you will bring your unique, feisty energy to this course and you will emerge a NEW BEING. Follow your bliss. Follow your heart. Much love, hugs and encouragement to you as you start along a new path in the forest.

Kim Antieau said...

Thanks, Will! We'll see how it goes. I'm not going to go winter quarter. We're still crossing our fingers you'll all still be there and we can continue our annual tradition. ;-)

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