Keeping it Real

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. ~Kahlil Gibran

Sean Eric
Sean Eric

Today is my youngest brother’s birthday. It is the second year I have marked the occasion without him. It is a day that almost feels suspended in time, a space where, for a moment, I cannot move. Then I remember.

He was sure that the tiger was real. We talked about it for weeks after he read Life of Pi. I had sent it to him almost a year before, and he finally read it. It was his second time in rehab. When he finished it, he called me from the break room phone. “That was the best book I’ve ever read. Maybe it’s the first book I’ve ever read,” he quipped. I could tell he was pleased with himself.

“It’s fucked up” he said, about the ending. “That anyone would believe that the tiger wasn’t real is just fucked up. Like eating cereal with no milk. What’s the point? Better to just throw yourself overboard or go hungry.”

It was basic gut for him. He couldn’t entertain the other story. Maybe my own exhaustion or age or cynicism allowed me to consider the hopelessness of other options. Maybe when stripped down to nothing, people truly are just terrors fighting for survival? Maybe we each just do what we have to do in order to get by? I thought it could happen, but not Sean. He couldn’t imagine it.

I think about that series of conversations about the tiger, and I could read so much into it. I could try to find some bigger meaning, to make sense of where he was and the struggle he had with trying to find a connection to himself and a community where there was hope and aspirations without heroin interrupting his beautiful beautiful self. I could tell myself so many things about our conversations.

I could have told him that he was not alone, even after the tiger disappeared off into the jungle trees.

But the coulds and the shoulds are not real. They cannot save. Him or me.

But cheerios, those are real. And joy, that too. Real. And my brother was always good for keeping it butt-slapping real.

So on his birthday, I remember our conversations about Love and Pi. I remember him and I keeping it real, bungee jumping at Worlds of Fun above asphalt on a 100 degree day in August.

RIP Sean Eric Christenson
April 1, 1992-September 14, 2014

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Even in harsh conditions, we thrive

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White Sands National Park

Sometimes living in the desert I am struck by how harsh the living conditions are. Just a few miles up the Sandia Mountains on the outskirts of Albuquerque, the landscape is dry and hot, filled with cacti and rattlers. It is not a hike for the faint at heart, or those without water, especially on a hot summer’s day. I’ve also felt this oppressiveness at the Sand Dunes National Monument or at White Sands and even on the mesa near my house. And yet, plants and wildlife thrive in these environments. They have learned how to live and grow in beauty and be strong with the sun and earth conditions.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in terms of humans, and how we also thrive in harsh conditions, and sometimes we struggle to figure out how. A lot has recently been written on how children need grit in order to make it in the world these days. And by grit, researchers mean tenacity or toughness to make it through harsh situations. Other researchers call it resilience. And still others have said that to shelter children from harsh environments means that they will be unequipped to navigate them once they face them as adults.

Sometimes I feel like I shelter my son too much, and other times I worry that he’s so much in the world that he’s completely unsafe. But then, I remember . . . he is part of the world. He is connected to this world, and he interacts with it on his own terms, as a complete human being, whatever his age. I can help him interpret, but I cannot change that fact that he is a complete human and part of this world, a world that is harsh and beautiful. And I try to remember the beautiful part when I help in interpret. But heck, I need help interpreting too, and so I reach to others in the same way. It is always a matter of learning, seeking support and speaking to beauty, not just to harshness. Maybe it is just about always carrying enough water.

I think about the lizards at White Sands, and their feet, shaped to be able to race over the hot sand like tiny potholders protecting their bodies. Most certainly, this is a resilience adaptation for survival in their harsh conditions, a normal way of living for this little reptilian creature. Maybe the thing with humans is, we can’t figure out what’s normal — is it normal to need to live in a diverse community peacefully? or is it a threat? is it normal to  need tenacity in order to navigate unknown? Or maybe it is both? and holding opposites simultaneously in our thinking minds confuses us?

Lizard hanging out at home in White Sands

If we look around us, the answer seems to inevitably appear. Diversity exists. Opposites exist together in the world all over. Every day and night, again and again. And again and again. Maybe navigating the world means venturing into this diversity, and whether that requires grit, resilience or just plain and simple loving, it has to be.

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On being a teacher

kelley teaching 3I’ve been thinking about teaching and teachers a lot recently. Having been a writing teacher for many years, some of my own fondest teachable moments happened to me in my writing classroom. I made a lot of mistakes and I grew up in my classroom. I tried grand experiments that utterly failed, and I apologized. I learned to see, and in many ways, be seen as I wrote and read with my students. And I was always humbled by my experiences.

I have also always sought out teachers in my life. And I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught by beautiful men and women, older and younger than me, from all walks of life. They have taught me to grow up, how to be a mother. They have taught me to be a professional, to ski, to run, how to love and how to divorce, and how to love again in deeper and more real ways. They have taught me how to persevere, and how to think. Oh, and importantly, they have taught me to laugh and screw up, and keep on going even after I screw up.

And as a teacher, I think about my role because I love being a student too. And I think my students have often been my best teachers. That iterative relationship is an art in teaching, an evolving conversation where story unfolds so delicately. Sometimes it is chaotic, and sometimes it is surprising. The first day of class I never knew who would surprise me or change me, but in my classes, what I did know is that someone would. That I could always trust. Someone’s story would change my world, and I loved that possibility.  Still, I love that possibility. One time I had this student when I was teaching on the Eastside in St. Louis:

     He was in his mid-50s, and he was a plummer. He had failed English twice and this was his last try at it. He really wanted a certification and without English, he wasn’t going to get it. He stopped me after a class early in the term, and told me how nervous he was, which in itself was a huge act of courage. He was a big guy, more than a foot taller than me, and more than twice as wide. He said he really wanted to pass but he really couldn’t write. He needed to pass for his wife and his daughter. He already recognized that he was a failure for himself, but he wanted this for them. During the course of our conversation, which opened up over several weeks, I learned that he was a musician, a deacon at his church, and a Vietnam Vet. I learned that his son had been killed a block from home in a gang fight just six months earlier. I suggested that he write the story of his son for his English grade. He looked at me, stunned that it was possible to get a grade for something so personal.  He agreed. Over the next few weeks, he wrote and wrote. He wrote more than any other student in the class.
Toward the end of the term, his wife and daughter came to class. They hugged me and began crying before I was even formally introduced. His wife wiped her tears, and looked at her husband. He smiled, and stayed silent. Then she told me that her husband had shared his paper at their Thanksgiving family feast. She said that no one had ever told the real story of her son. When her husband read his paper she heard an honor between father and son that she had never recognized. She said that her husband grew taller. He was proud. So she arranged for him to read it at church next Sunday. She was hoping that I would join them so that I could see what I had nourished.
I did join them at church, wearing my best suit and high heels.
My student read the real story of his son to his congregation. That day I experienced many stories of love and community behind the media face of gang violence. I shared song and prayer, and fellowship. I was honored for giving voice. I honored them for seeing me, accepting me, and surrounding me with love. I was the only white woman in his church that day, and race was of no issue to me or to his family. I never spoke with him again after the end of that semester so I don’t know the rest of his story. What I do know is that I changed the world that day, and the world changed me.

It was a moment, a question and an experience that my student and I gave each other. Not answers. Nothing black and white, but a space to feel and change our perceptions of ourselves, and the world. That is what made us teachers for each other. And that is the gift of being a teacher and a student.

The road to becoming whoever it is we are or need to become is certainly not a well-worn and easy path, but when we find a teacher who can give us comfort, share wise insights, offer a map of experience, help us form our stories, or just let us cry a bit, we can summon our courage and, wow, what can happen, is truly beauty.

To all of us being open students and wise teachers for everyone we meet! Cheers!

The rural urbanite (or urban ruralite), and loving it.

city porchIn the last year I haven’t written on this blog very much. I have been collecting lots of images and stories to post, but my family and I have been gathering our strength (and our belongings) for new adventures that have taken much of our focus, spirit and strength. Transitions are time consuming endeavors. Often exhausting and scary in their unknown beauty. But also just in the sheer number of tasks to get to where we want to go, even under the best of circumstances.

And right now, our adventure is learning to live as a family in two places, in the city and in the country, in one place where we walk to the neighborhood grocery (or Target) and in another place where we “drive into town” to get our groceries. We are learning to live on our own in many ways, and be more independent. It means that I have to do the dishes all the time now, and that Ric has to cook sometimes. I am trying to fill the freezer full of food for him. And I have to do my own laundry too. But it also means other things too, like growing up and appreciating our roles. It means being flexible (oh my god!) and making due. And it means changing (even more OH MY GOD!).

And after a few months, the differences are quite remarkable, and beautiful to say the least. Urban living is glorious in its ease and convenience. A gallon of milk is across the street from me right now as I write, and so are a new pair of blue jeans. And I have bought a couple pair. And even a jog in the neighborhood park where there is no mud and lots of gorgeous grass and picnic tables is right there. People I’ve never seen before are picnicking, playing frisbee, and running their dogs. The sheer beauty and diversity of people everywhere at any point in time is simply lovely. And I am simply one. Beautiful and anonymous as well.

italianos snowAnd at home, in the mountains, I can also run. In the mud, and snow. With a background of magnificent sky, mountain and plains that most people really never imagine. And when I hiked with my husband last weekend, we were alone. Just us and our dog, hip deep in snow for miles, laughing and having the world to ourselves.

These two worlds seem opposing at times. In one I need quiet, and in the other I need diversity, sounds and sights varied and delightful. In one I need space, and in the other I need chaos and busy city noise. And lucky for me, I have both, and can grow full from them both. They seem oppositional, and often in politics they are, but in real life, I think we need them both. I need both. Alone and together.


Finding a Good Hike for a Good Old Pair of Boots

1Today I went for a mountain hike with my almost sixteen year old son, and our exuberant and lovely dog. We were alone on the trail, and we both spent time reminiscing about all the time we’ve spent on the beautiful Italianos Trail. It was delightful to listen to my son remember his stories — that when he crossed the creek as a child the stones seemed impossibly big and scary to reach across. He remembered feeling sure that he would tumble into the cold water. But today his legs are so much longer, and the stones felt so small. Today, the crossing was so easy. Oh yes, the perspective that age brings.

We also commented on how much he has changed in that last thirteen years, and how the trail has changed so little. The caves are all still intact, the special trees, swimming spots. Yes, so much changes, and so much stays the same. Life is so much that way, and the older we get the more we notice the little things, and the big things. And truly all of it is so much sweeter. If we let it be.

Italianos Trail is familiar. It is like home in the mountains for us. We used to come here when he and his cousin were toddlers. We would bring friends here. I helped him learn how to hike, how to maneuver through the rocks and identify plants, bugs, and learn how to be in the mountains safely on this trail. Noitalianos2w as a teenager, my son is my hiking partner, my equal, stronger than me, with more endurance and strength, but still innocent in so many ways. I so appreciate this transition. He remembers the spot where his cousin fell into the creek, and the place where our friends got stuck in the creek when they were attempting to be adventurous.

Along the way, I realize that while he’s changed, I’m still hiking in the same boots that carried him on my back when he was a baby. He changes at such a fast pace, and I’m slower, in so many ways. He still can kick my butt on the trail. But in terms of self awareness, and shifting perspectives and adapting the changing world, youthfulness simply takes the fast 2lane easier. It is beautiful to watch, and to remember when I was more nimble, my body more flexible, requiring less thought to more through the world.

So I wear the same worn out, comfortable boots that taught him to jump across the creeks. The boots have taken me from my college days, to my son’s birth to his teen years. They have helped me forge new paths, and stay on well beaten ones. They are like good friends.

And as life transitions, we certainly need things that we depend on, even if it is just good old hiking boots.


Why Dirt Road?

Ric at the summit of Imogene Pass. Telluride, CO
Ric at the summit of Imogene Pass. Telluride, CO

Why Dirt Road Journal?

The short answer is because my family loves to get off road and have an adventure. But there’s a lot more to it too. We are adventurous souls. Being on the road of life pushes boundaries and comfort zones, and adventure makes new rules and breaks old ones. That is is where real living is.

And sometimes, we have no choice, adventure finds us. Life is that way.  It happens, and how we respond to it is our choice. We can engage with courage and a sense of curiosity and self-reliance, or we can sit at the bottom of the mountain and cry at the steepness of the summit. Life is in the climb. Traveling gives us practice climbing. Traveling off road gives us tools and stories, experiences and love for tackling new and unknown life.

Sometimes off road is a new cafe, or a practicing a foreign language, or trying new food. It could be taking a hike for the first time, visiting a world heritage site or sitting in meditation.

Being in those places is sometimes like scare-your-socks-off, and sometimes it is pure and simple beauty that makes you cry. Life is funny and scary and when you’re on off-road, it is also pure. It is the place where my husband is truly himself, and where we work together in pure fun. It is the place where anything pretentious dissipates and where presence is profoundly cultivated. Of course, the 1,000 foot drop on the passenger side is a friendly reminder to stay present.

In the last decade, my family has driven hundreds of back country roads in New Mexico and Colorado. These photos and video (forgive my video-editing skills or lack thereof) give you a small glimpse into one way we cultivate presence and find ourselves through adventure. Most often my husband drives, my son navigates, and I document. We’ve driven the highest roads in the country, and they are magnificent! And we all look at roads like Devil’s Punch Bowl and think, “holy moly, how will we navigate that doozy?”

Yes. Hell yes, we’ve gotten stuck, many times. We’ve had to turn around, and a couple of times we’ve had to ask people for help. But I always think, “well, it is only a days walk to the closest town. That’s do-able if anything were to happen.” And really nothing does. Nothing we haven’t handled at least. One time the car died. One time we flooded the engine driving through water too deep. One time we were stuck in a mud bog. But we’ve always gotten through it, and in the end we have a great story and a satisfying day. Even if my finger nails are gone at the end of it.

Life in general is much the same. Sometimes it can be nail-biting. Sometimes we get stuck, really stuck, and need to ask for help. Sometimes we can recognize that it is a short trip back to “normal” and just go for it.

So this blog…not so much about dragging your truck through the mountains, as expanding your mind and body by traveling to places off your beaten path. Finding your own off-road adventures to open your hearts and mind.

That’s why this is the Dirt Road Journal.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.