Sunday, August 8, 2010

Certified: Inflexible Me: Part One

(Once again, I had an interesting residency as I attempt to get a graduate certificate in ecological planning and design at a university in Seattle. And once again, I describe how I felt at the time, not necessarily how I feel now. Any difficulties I'm having are my problems and aren't caused by anyone else I encounter during these treks. At least so far.)

I left Thursday morning for my second residency in Seattle. Mario was in Vancouver for Union negotiations, so I didn't get to see him. The day was cool and overcast: perfect driving weather.

When I got closer to Seattle, the drivers got more aggressive. People seemed to be driving too fast. When I signaled and then changed lanes, well ahead of any other car, the drivers invariably honked and flashed their lights, as though I had done something despicable.

Earlier in the year when I was driving in the Los Angeles area and complaining about the drivers, my friend Jenine (who is from California) told me that generally speaking California drivers knew what they were doing. Once I accepted this, I stopped panicking every time someone swerved in front of me or drove too close to me. Driving became much easier after that.

Seattle drivers must have their own logic and way of doing things, too. But I was a stranger and didn't understand it. Every time I asked someone who lived in Seattle about the traffic, they were not reassuring. They invariably agreed that it was crazy. Then they'd start telling me their Seattle-driving horror stories.

I arrived at the little religious house and got the key to my room. This time I was assigned the smaller room with a double bed. I liked it. It felt more like a bedroom or a hotel room. A painting of irises and violets hung on the south wall, and a painting of a fritillaria hung on the west wall. Right next to the bed was a painting of mountains with their reflection in a glacier pond. It was called Wilderness.

I felt quite welcomed in this room. I opened the shade and looked out the window at the alleyway and wondered if my wildlife friends from my previous residency were there.

I didn't see him (the rat) or her (the wren).

I was worn out and stressed out from the drive. I wondered again if I could keep doing this for a whole year. I ate some quinoa and vegetables I'd brought.

Before it got too late, I decided to drive to Lakeview Cemetery. I had heard somewhere that walking in this cemetery was like walking in a forest, only graves were scattered here and there. I looked at my Seattle city map and thought I figured out where it was, and then I drove toward it.

I got lost once or twice. I still had no sense of direction when it came to Seattle.

Eventually I found the cemetery. I turned into the drive.

It looked like every other cemetery in the United State. The forest cemetery I had heard about must have been somewhere else. I didn't even get out of the car.

Next to the cemetery was Volunteer Park. I got out and walked around. On the side near the cemetery, kids played in a fountain with parents watching. I walked away from the cemetery into a kind of rolling lawn with these huge old trees growing here and there. Their bark and coloring reminded me of cedar trees, only these trunks were huge and the branches swooped down to the ground so that from far away it looked like a tall pointed tent (slightly off the ground) but up close and underneath, it was like a tree-made fort or cave. Or like the swooped branches were arms holding up green frockery as they danced, as they danced, as they danced.

Lots of images came to me as I oohed and aahed over them.

I felt almost peaceful, almost grounded, standing next to these very old trees.



Later I drove to Whole Foods and got a frozen dinner and some cookies. Went back to my room, ate, watched DVDs, got a few hours of sleep.

Woke up to gray skies and a bit of cloud sweat. So much nicer than the last residency. Had I become so acclimated to the Pacific Northwest that I preferred cloudy days?


Made it to school easy as pie this time. Parked on the side of the building on Battery, by the car wash. A huge sign of a happy pink elephant spraying itself with neon water slowly turned next to the car wash. I paid too much for parking and went into the building and up to the class.

I didn't feel like I was as much of a stranger this time around. I did feel a little dizzy, though, so I asked if we could turn off the fluorescent lights. That helped. I got a little steadier. We went around the room to "check-in."

When it got to me, I said what I had learned over the month was that I liked to have a "how-to" list when I was learning something new. I had felt a bit at sea trying to learn so much of this stuff on my own and by trial and error.

Later the instructor said it was important to understand that permaculture wasn't about doing something step by step. We had to rely on our intuition and often by trial and error.

At least that was what I think I heard him say.

On the face of it, that was great advice. I would love to learn everything by using my intuition. But we all learn differently. Some by reading, some by hearing, some by doing. For some things I actually want blow-by-blow instructions. I have often gotten frustrated watching various men in my family taking too long (in my mind) getting projects completed because they hadn't read the directions.

I read directions. I methodically figure out how to fix problems. I'm the one in our family who puts together the tangle of satellite, DVD player, VCR, and television wires and cables so that we can watch TV.

When I was a kid, I liked taking clocks apart.

Then I'd put them back together.

I didn't have instructions then. I just did it.

Had I lost the ability to just do things, instinctively, relying on my own know-how?

Or do we sometimes we just need instructions?

After check-in, we talked about our permaculture projects. For this residency, we had to map the property as it was now and then draw it, to scale, on a large piece of paper.

I had never done landscape drawing. I didn't know how to do landscape drawing. When I had been doing it at home a few days earlier, I thought, OK, I'm taking this class to learn stuff but I'm learning this stuff all on my own. Wasn't I paying a lot of money to sit here learning on my own?

I did the drawing, but I was nervous about it. I wasn't an artist. I knew at least one person in the class was an architect. I couldn't compete with that.

Of course, we weren't competing. This school was all about collaborating. We showed each other our individual plans to be inspired by each other, to get ideas from each other, and to offer constructive criticism.

I taped mine to the wall and then walked around and looked at everyone else's.

The plans were interesting, but I didn't learn a lot by looking at them.

I kept wondering if I was missing something. Some piece of it all. Everyone else seemed so engaged, and I still felt separate.

After we looked at our maps, we watched a movie. It was a movie about permaculture that I could get off youtube. Why was I wasting time watching a movie in class? A twenty year old movie at that. I only saw this instructor and these people in real life three times a term. I wanted to have a discussion or brain storm. Something. I did not want to sit in class watching a movie.

This was crazy. I had to get my mind right. I couldn't spend the next year criticizing everything that happened in the classroom.

What was wrong with me?

The instructors were "guides on the side" not "sages on the stage."

Was I so accustomed to the "sages on the stage" way of education that I just couldn't get into the swing of the "guides on the side?"

We broke for lunch. I heard everyone arranging rides to our next destination, the Medicinal Herb Garden at the University of Washington. I didn't pay any attention. I quickly got my plan from the wall and left.

My little boarding house was near UW, so I figured I'd go home and then meet the others at the herb garden. The instructor had told us we could park on the street at the university. I had emailed him earlier in the week that I needed directions so I could make a google map. He told me he'd give us directions once we got to school: he hadn't lost anyone yet.

I still wanted the directions. I listened to his directions in the classroom and didn't understand them one bit. I don't think he understood that I really did not know the city. I was glad I had my map.

In my room I ate a quick lunch. Then I looked at my map again and again, so that I clearly knew where I was going. I headed out.

I got lost almost immediately. The road I was supposed to turn down wasn't there. Or didn't have a sign. Or something. And there was absolutely no street parking. What had the instructor been talking about? I had to stop and ask directions twice. I got a map of the campus. I still couldn't figure out where I was.

Finally I put the car in a parking structure and I walked onto campus. The air was humid and still smoky from fires burning around Washington. My breathing became a little ragged as I walked down the sidewalk, past the chemistry building on one side and greenhouses on the other. I wondered if I should go to the greenhouses to see if my group was there, but then I saw what I supposed was the medicinal herb gardens.

I walked up under the trees and into the herb gardens. I saw raised bed after raised bed of plants. I saw pink petals blown back from the burnt orange center of echinacea plants and the round prickly balls of milk thistle and I figured I was in the right place.

Only no one else was there.

I walked up and down the seven large sections of the gardens, from one end to another, several times. No one else was came.

I heard jets overheard. I looked up. The Blue Angels flew over. I'd heard they were in town. I walked the gardens looking for my classmates. Maybe I was early. Maybe they all gotten trapped in the Blue Angel traffic. Wasn't I special getting there on time?

I stopped a couple walking by and asked if this was the medicinal herb garden.

The man said, "No, it's over there." He pointed.

"By the greenhouses?"


"Are you sure?" the woman asked. "These look like medicinal plants."

I walked over toward the greenhouses. I didn't see anyone. I did see the sign for the Medicinal Herb Garden. That's where I'd been.

I sat on a bench in the gardens. I tried to look around. Tried to relax. So what if I missed the class? I was here in the gardens. I should just enjoy it.

But I couldn't relax. Couldn't enjoy it.

The Blue Angels kept thundering overhead. Exploding overhead. The sound was so loud I had to cover my ears--and I already had cotton in them. Soon every time the jets screamed overhead, I dropped my notebook, covered my ears, and screamed at the top of my lungs.

No one heard me.

For one thing, no one was around.

No classmates.

When I'd been there for about half 'n hour, I walked over to the greenhouses. Just then an unfamiliar man came walking outside, followed by my classmates.

They'd been there all along? I'd been in the wrong place?

I was so angry I could hardly stand it.

I guess I had misheard the instructions.

Or misread them.

Or something.

How stupid could I have been to go to the wrong place?

And the instructor acted as though it was no big thing. Who cared that everyone had been waiting or lost or whatever. Let's just carry on.

I was mortified.

Now I was some batty old lady who kept getting lost.

I tried to listen to the man talk about the garden.

But I just felt myself drifting further and further away.

Why was I doing this? Why was I here? What was I learning looking at this garden?

I floated from here to there.

An hour and a half later we were instructed to go to the next rendezvous spot. We had fifteen minutes to get to a house that was about twenty minutes away.

I trekked to my car, alone, got back on the road and immediately got lost again. I called Mario, but what could he do? I finally said I was going to have to figure it out one way or another. The maps weren't working. The traffic was bad.

I kept telling myself it didn't matter. If I didn't get there on time, it did. not. matter.

None of this was important enough to be so stressed out.

I got to the right street and I saw all my classmates walking down the road. I waved. I was in the right place.

The teacher had instructed us to park far from the house so we wouldn't block the drive or any of the neighbors. I parked the car and walked down to the street.

All of my classmates were gone. I looked up and down the street.

Nothing and no one. Just suburban quiet.

I had the address. I opened my notebook and looked it up. There. On that mailbox. I walked up to house by the mailbox and knocked on the door. I rang the bell. I called out.

No one answered.

It was a dumpy house. I thought it was strange we were going here. Someone was home though. The back of their car was open with groceries in the back. I saw a dog next door. I didn't want to deal with a dog.

Where was everyone?

I called and called.

I walked down the stairs to the large back yard.

No one.

I saw a stream in the back yard. A glimpse of it between the trees. Dark running water.

I wanted to be there.

I started back. I was exhausted. I couldn't believe this had happened again.

I started to cry. Only the tears didn't come.

All dried up.

I was going home.

Fuck. This. Shit.

I pulled myself up the stairs and walked back to the road.

One of my classmates was standing across the street looking up and down the road.

She saw me and said, "I thought you might not know where we were."

Instead of being grateful, I was once again furious.

"I can't believe I have gotten left twice today," I said. And then I swore. Or something. Said I was going home. She said, "But it's really nice in there."

So I went in.

The whole class were crowded around a cistern in the middle of a cluttered yard.

The owners talked enthusiastically about their garden, their water system, their solar panels, their bees. Their bees' knees.

All things I was interested in.

Or had been.

I wasn't any longer.

I just wanted to leave.

I thanked the young woman who had come to get me.

Later one or two people tried to talk to me. But I floated away. I didn't care. I didn't matter to them, so they didn't matter to me.

I wasn't part of their little group.

Of course I wasn't. At this university, they worked in cohorts. They all knew each other from the beginning of the program to the end. I was not part of their cohort. I wasn't part of their own little college clique.

I wondered if this was how people had felt in high school when they weren't part of a particular group.

I hadn't paid any attention to cliques when I was in high school. I was so great and wonderful I just figured everyone would want to know me and be with me. The whole world was my clique.

That's what I say now, but I was anorexic-bulimic the summer before I started high school. I was scared to death of it.

Fast forward a few decades.

Quite a few.

While we were at this house looking at everything the owners had done to try to lessen their carbon footprint, I tried to force myself to engage in the experience. I couldn't seem to do it. I knew this was one of the hallmarks of depression, but I didn't feel depressed. I felt disengaged.

Perhaps my brain had been so damaged by depression and stress that I had become inflexible. I could no longer roll with the punches. Or whatever that expression was.

I felt no affection for anyone. No empathy.

I wanted to leave.

When no one looking, that's what I did.

I got in my car and drove back to my room.

I called Mario. I wanted to curl up into a ball. I wanted to go home. I wanted to quit.

Why was I doing this?

Really. Why?

Because I hadn't sold a novel in a while.

Because I wanted to contribute something to my world.

Because I had to make a living.

Why couldn't my writing be enough?

I had gone on a visual meditation recently (a journey). And my good friends in the meditation said I was too scattered. I needed to figure out what I was good at and do that one thing. If everyone in the world did that, wow! What a world we'd have.

At the time, I argued with them. My one thing was writing. But a girl's gotta make a living.

Was this schooling going to help me make a living? How? Get a job at a nonprofit making shit wages while working my ass off and getting sick from the stress or from some crappy building I was working in. No. I'd done that, been there.

I didn't want to do it again.

So why was I doing this?

I called my friend who lives in Seattle. We'd taken Tom Cowan's Faery Doctoring and his two year Celtic Shamanism together. She's also a writer. She feels like an old friend, and we understand each other's world's. Sometime that is so necessary: To be around people where you don't have to explain or justify yourself.

She said she'd come get me. I didn't have to drive anywhere.

Oh my!

And she did come get me. She took me to the Fremont Troll. We drove up under the Aurora Bridge, on Troll Avenue, and there at the end of the road was a gigantic troll made out of concrete.

We parked the car and walked over to it. Its one eye was shiny (made from a hubcab, apparently). In its left hand, it crushed a volkswagon bug. Three musicians sat about twenty feet in front of him, playing music. Other people clamored up onto the troll.

I said hello to the Troll and thanked it for letting me visit this burg.

We headed out again. It was so relaxing being in the driver's seat. We ended up at a park looking out at Puget Sound.

The sun was beginning to set so the sky was pink. I walked with my friend to the water's edge and looked out across the bay. The water lapped against the shore which was made of stones and seashells.


Yes, I felt the Old Mermaids here.

I breathed in the sound of the Old Sea.

I felt like myself again.

My friend and I talked of many things as the sun went down.

And then it was time to leave.

What a needed respite our few hours together were.

I went back to my room with visions of the Troll in my head.

I decided not to quit.

I could do it one more day.

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