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Friday, April 21, 2017

The Places They Could Go

by Rebecca Potter

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...”                                                                             
                                                                —Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go

I have a lump in my throat as soon as Pomp and Circumstance begins and the graduates file in. I sit with other robed teachers on one side of the graduating class, so close I can smell Ethan’s too-strong cologne and read the glittery inscription painted on Olivia’s mortar board: I applied to Hogwarts but was accepted at UK. Go Wildcats! Family and friends of the graduates surround us in stadium seating. Some wear suits and ties and others wear plaid button-down shirts tucked into khaki shorts. Several parents carry bouquets and gift bags. Phones out and ready. Now and then someone yells something like “You go, girl!” or “We love you, Matt!”  For a moment or two I put myself in the place of one of those parents watching a ceremony that officially says my child is grown and will be leaving me soon. I exhale deeply to prevent myself from crying.
The ceremony begins the way it does every year, with welcome addresses and speeches. Along with worn-out admonitions about always remembering the good times of high school and dreaming big and going far, the Valedictorian and Salutatorian both mention me in their speeches. They say kind words about the difference I have made in their lives. Colleagues sitting near me slap my back, graduates turn and smile and pump fists at me. These speeches are gifts. Teachers don’t get bonuses or merit raises; this is it right here—public recognition from former students. I am honored and humbled. But it’s not their speeches or the mention of my name that causes the lump in my throat to finally dislodge and the tears to come.
It’s the names. Nearly three hundred of them. With each name, a student crosses the stage, and so does a story. Mia went with the softball team to the state championship two years in a row. Alex has a 4.0 and scored well on several AP exams. Erin will be the first in her family to go to college. Ruby’s parents emigrated from Uzbekistan; she is the oldest of eleven children. Jessica is a Mormon, the only one in our school. Chris is going to a college thousands of miles away on a wrestling scholarship. Josh shot a buck with a beautiful set of antlers last fall. Andre wants to be a musician; his mom wants him to be a doctor. Missy hates school. Jeremiah is gay and is concerned about people in our small town not liking him because of it. Troy entered my class with a second-grade reading level. Beth is pregnant; her belly is big enough to cause the graduation gown to billow out. Hannah lived with her aunt and uncle until they were divorced this year. Logan broke his foot in the first football game of his senior year. Crystal’s parents spent their inheritance on drugs; she moved out. Ethan has a drug problem; he’s been arrested several times. Kayla’s boyfriend beat her up so her parents put a restraining order on him. Hailey’s mother passed away just three years ago, and she is constantly searching for someone to be her mom.
And on and on they go. Some dream of becoming doctors or pilots or lawyers or teachers or business owners. Some are going to travel. Others will join the military. Some of them will become engineers, welders, cosmetologists, or mechanics. They will go on to pursue careers, start families, and generally do good things in their community.
 But other names whisper failure. Some of them have no dreams. They don’t know they are allowed to dream, or they can’t. They are doomed before they have even really begun. They will jump from dead-end job to dead-end job, toxic relationship to toxic relationship, never settling down or finding contentment. They will abandon their kids, end up poor, lonely, and addicted to something. Or they will live in their parents’ basement far too long. Maybe they’ll end up in jail. Some will die too young.
As they graduate, their paths split and splinter. No matter what they do or where they go, they take part of me with me with them. They take what they have learned in my classroom and leave me behind to question if they will make it and to wonder what kinds of places they will go. It is this—having cared about these people so much and knowing only echoes of my voice go with them from this point—that makes me cry at graduation.
I think about this when Michael crosses the stage. There is no one there to clap for him. His celebration is his own. His dusty brown work boots and jeans peak from below his graduation gown. He towers over the principal as he heartily shakes his hand and receives his diploma, then gives a sideways smile for the camera. He lumbers off the stage, his tassel getting stuck on his lip.
I had Michael in class his sophomore and junior years. When he was a junior, he broke his ankle then caught his mother stealing his pain medicine. I can see his mom, dirty and small, short brown hair and sunken eyes. I imagine her rummaging through his drawers, under his bed, searching for parts of him to steal—his privacy, his trust, his love.
He confronted her about it. She denied it, accused him of lying, and called him ungrateful. She said he was a terrible son. And then she kicked him out with nothing but a duffel bag, a broken ankle, and memories of growing up with a mother who needed to be high more than she cared about her child and a father who was never there.
Eighteen and homeless, Michael went from one friend’s house to another’s, holding down a full-time job. He slept in most of his classes. When he was awake, his eyes were red and his attention somewhere else. But he was different in my class.
“Well, what do you think, Mrs. Potter?” His speech was slow and drawn out, very Southern and very kind. He constantly asked for approval, to make sure he was doing the work right, to know what he needed to do better.
“Michael, it’s great.” I returned to him the crumpled, scribbled-on notebook paper that was his rough draft. He had finished the assignment a full three days before anyone else and wanted feedback on the spot. Written expression was a real struggle for him because of a learning disability. I knew he had worked hard on this assignment. “I would give it a B. Well done!”
“What do I need to do to get an A?” I knew he would ask that; he always did.
After a few more drafts, he did get the A. And he continued to work hard for me for all the time I had him in class. After one classroom observation, the principal expressed shock that Michael, whom he knew well, participated and worked so much. He wondered if he was always on task. Of course he was.
“You know why he works for you?” My principal didn’t give me a chance to answer. “He knows you care about him, and he loves you for it.”
Now Michael is graduating and will soon be starting community college. I think when Michael is in class this fall, he will hear my voice telling him he is capable. He will remember the story that Cheever wrote about a boy meeting his father at a train station. He will feel that anger again and vow to never be that person. He will be better than his father, better than his mother. He will hear me tell him how proud I am of him, as I have done dozens of times, because maybe no one else has done so. In class when he gets sleepy, he will hear me tell him, “Wake up, Michael. You got this, buddy.”
I clap hard when Michael crosses the stage at graduation. I do not even follow directions and wait for all the graduates’ names to be called before I do so.
When I first started teaching, when I cared about my job but before I knew how to really love my students, I wondered what the point really was, especially for the kids not going to college, those who will be working on a farm or in auto shop or on a factory line. Those kids will likely work hard and lead good lives, but they won’t need to know how the final chapter of The Great Gatsby is soaked in rich irony or how point of view affects our understanding of poor Miss Emily and her rose. Why did it matter if they knew the plot of The Crucible or if they had read anything by Hawthorne? I wondered why I should teach them how to explicate a poem or write an academic essay. If they couldn’t identify a preposition in a sentence, would it really make a difference in their quality of life? These questions in my early years came from a concern for efficiency and effectiveness. I did not see the point of wasting time and resources on teaching skills and material students would never use.
Now that I know what it means to love my students, my concerns have changed. What skills and content do they need to be successful beyond the classroom, whether they are going to college or not? How can I be sure to reach all of them? Am I doing enough? Am I doing it right? More difficult, what do I do about the students who will go nowhere no matter what I teach them? Teaching these stories and skills won’t save many of my students from failure. It’s more than just a possibility that some of my students will fail. So many already have.
Like Justin. Justin should be at graduation tonight. He should casually stroll across the stage, the way he used to walk the hallways, nod his head as he accepts his diploma, then with a slight, shy smile leave the stage, diploma in hand—ready to go. But while his friends and classmates are celebrating and moving on, Justin is sitting in a jail cell writing me a letter, apologizing for letting me down, asking me to help him make his life matter.
Justin was never in trouble in school. He never caused problems. He came to class with his muddy shoes, Carhartt jacket, and a back pocket with a faded circle where he kept his can of dip. His hair was unkempt and his voice quiet. He punctuated his sentences with “Ma’am” and always looked me in the eye when I spoke to him. He was quiet and uninterested, but he did his work and was respectful.
Much of his life was a blank for me. His parents were divorced. I imagine his father wasn’t there for much of his childhood. And when he was there, they were working together in the tobacco field or under a truck. His mom probably worked a shift job, so she couldn’t help him with his homework or ask about his day or give him kisses which he would pretend  annoyed him. I think he grew up in an empty house where he filled his loneliness with mischief. I think he was expected to be a man before he knew how.
Now this barely-man is alone in jail because he committed armed robbery. He and two other of my former students robbed a local convenience store. They stole beer and cash. Maybe Justin was the one holding the gun, sticking it in the cashier’s face. I hear his soft voice, the polite tones turned to quiet threats, “Give me the money.” He wouldn’t yell. He wouldn’t even sound mean. That’s not who Justin is, at least not in my classroom. It would be only the gun and the mask that would scare the cashier as he hurriedly and with shaking hands gathered the cash from the drawer for the boy who thought he was a man.
I reluctantly think about what kind of life Justin will have once he is out of jail—in a few months or possibly several years. The consequences of his mistakes will always be with him, defining who he is and limiting what he can become. And I wonder what parts of my voice Justin has taken with him to jail. Which of my words did he remember as he wrote his letter? I imagine him sitting on a bed in a gray jail cell, writing to me. He probably did not think about the O’Brien story when he wrote he was sorry. He was not considering the Longfellow poem when he scribbled about wanting to get his life straight. He didn’t care about subject-verb agreement or parallel structure or comma splices.
It was my voice telling him he was worth so much more than he understood about himself when he told me he thought he might not pass my class. It was the times I told him he was preparing to be a husband and a father. As he wrote his letter, he remembered me smiling at the classroom door he used to enter every day, telling him how glad I was he was here today and meaning it. Oh, how I wish he were here tonight with his classmates.
While I know Justin hears me, even from behind bars, I can’t help but wonder what I could have done differently, done better, to keep him out of jail. More stories, more lectures, more encouragement, more rebuke, more smiling, more pleading. Even as I wonder this, I know that no matter what I did or how strong and loud my voice was, Justin would have followed his own path. He is just like so many others who will fail no matter how much I beg them not to.
Even though many will not succeed, I still teach each one with all I have. Their lives matter, even the ones who go to jail, and there is always hope for redemption. My job is not solely to prepare students for college and careers. My job is also to care and show kindness.
Just like I care about Breanna. As she crosses the stage now, her make-up is thick, so much so that her face is lost behind it. She covers herself with fake eyelashes, thick penciled eyebrows, lipstick that extends above and below her lips. She has a septum piercing and an eyebrow piercing. Tattoos and other piercings are covered by her robe. Underneath all the make-up and piercings is a beautiful young woman with a sad story.
Last year, she shoplifted a purse. Just because she wanted to. Just because she was a rebellious teenager pushing the limits of what she could get away with. But she got caught. She told me this in the quiet of my classroom during my planning period. She sat in one of the small student desks, me at my teacher desk. The space between us was wide enough and narrow enough to make Breanna feel comfortable to share.
Her parents had separated years ago, her father absent for much of her childhood. Her mom always had money problems. This past summer she and her mom had been evicted. Breanna faced foster care or moving in with her dad. While living with her dad was probably the better option, it wasn’t easy. He yelled and cursed a lot and loved and encouraged very little. When Breanna had been caught stealing the purse, her mom picked her up from the police station. They decided to keep it a secret from her dad. But he found out. Yesterday.
Breanna said he yelled and cursed and yelled some more. I imagine Breanna sitting on the couch with her father standing over her, his words falling on her head with a heaviness that told her she couldn’t be any better than this, with a coldness that said no matter how good she was after today, he would never see her as valuable. I imagine her pushing against his angry words, struggling to leave the room and his condemnation sentencing her to a lifetime of thinking she was destined only to make mistakes and let people down. She crouched below his yelling and made it to the door. After she left, her dad called the police. The officers found Breanna, took her home, and told her to sit down and have a rational conversation with her father or face more serious consequences.
Breanna and her dad sat at the kitchen table in silence.
She was telling me all of this because she just needed someone to listen, she said. And I was there. But then it struck me that she needed something else, too. “Breanna, do you need me to talk to you the way a mom talks to her daughter?” She nodded and let out a quiet yes. So I began. I spoke to Breanna the same way I would had it been my child who stole the purse, the same inflection I use when one of my sons has really, really messed up and I am beyond yelling, with the same intensity of motherly affection.
“You are worth too much, you are far too valuable, you are way too important to be making such bad decisions.” My words were quiet and solid, slow and separated. I looked her in the eyes when I spoke, watching to be sure she heard the love behind my rebuke. “I love you too much to allow you to ruin your life by making stupid mistakes. You are better than this.”
Head dropped and shoulders hunched over, this tough girl in front of me sobbed. I thought maybe I’d said too much. Maybe I had overstepped my place as a teacher. Through her crying she muttered, “I wish my own mom would talk to me like that.”
I left the separation provided by my big teacher desk and went to this child. How I ached for her in that moment. How I wished I could do more and be more for her. Just like any mother, I wanted so much to take her hurt away and protect her from ever getting hurt again. Just like any mother, I wanted this child to be happy and good and safe, and I felt the desperation that came from knowing she was none of those things right then. I held her while she continued to sob. I knew she was not crying because she had stolen a purse.
Now at graduation, she winks at me after she is off the stage and returning to her seat. I study her as she walks by. I am concerned about her future, about her getting hurt, about how hard her life will be. She has no plans for college or work. I doubt her parents will offer much guidance. She is stepping forth into the grown-up world equipped with so many strengths and abilities but also with so much against her.
I wonder where she will go. Maybe she will end up working in a salon in a big city making people look and feel beautiful. Or in the post-partum unit of a hospital. Perhaps in a real estate agency or a bank here in town. 
But I know she could just as easily end up homeless. Or in jail. Or on drugs. Or worse.  
Wherever she goes, I hope she will recall me telling her how beautiful she is, how valuable she is. Years from now when she is hurting because someone’s ugly words are pouring down on her, I pray my voice will rise above the other and it will give her strength. While I might never see her again, I will tell her in remembered conversations that she is better than her mistakes, that grace is thick and all-covering, that it is never too late to do good things in this world. I don’t know what kind of story she is going to write with her life after today, but I am so glad to be a part of it. 
I love graduation because it represents the exciting edge of adulthood. These now-adults can do whatever they want, go wherever they want. Become whoever they want. So at graduation, I dream of the places they could go. And even though I will miss them and worry about them, I am satisfied in the hope that maybe one day, weeks or years from now, in some moment of their life when they need me they will hear my voice and, though faded with time, it will be clear and full of love.
A colleague of mine once talked about the lie that graduation is. All these graduates, smiling as they wait for their happy future to be handed to them. A huge stadium filled with family and friends cheering and clapping as these teenagers file one-by-one quickly crossing a stage to receive a flimsy, nearly meaningless piece of paper. We tease the kids with promises of the good things that await them and the amazing things they will do because they have graduated. But for many of these students, this graduation marks the highest achievement they will earn for the entirety of their lives. This is it. The pinnacle of their greatness: walking across a stage that millions of other people walk across every year while their family is asked to hold their applause until all the graduates’ names have been called.
I see graduation differently than my colleague. Yes, for many, this is it. Yes, this might be the best thing they ever accomplish. And, yes, it hurts that so many will amount to so little. But they are here. They have accomplished something, even if it seems small to us. So let’s clap. Let’s celebrate. It might be our only chance. I clap for the many who will continue to rise to new levels of success. But I cheer just as mightily for the ones for whom this is it. Because this is it. Why not cheer? These people have value beyond their destiny.
So I cheer and clap and cry.

Rebecca Potter is an English teacher at a rural high school in central Kentucky. She is currently working on her Creative Writing MFA in the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. This piece is a part of a larger collection of essays that focus on how environment and relationships affect education. Rebecca lives with her husband, three sons, and two bulldogs. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

This Is a Dickie Lee Song

by Maria Trombetta

          Dammit, Dickie Lee, you were supposed to live forever. You always said to me, “No way, uhn uhn, not me. I’m never gonna die. I’m gonna live forever. I’m stayin alive, like John Travolta. Stayin aliiiive, iiiiiiv—ah!”
          He used to say he was born in the Sonoma State Hospital on March 6th, 1948. I can’t find any records of anyone being born there, no doubt his parents brought him there when he was a baby, less than two years old, after they realized he was blind. Albert says that Dickie Lee was on the little kid unit with him, Baine Cottage. When I met Dickie Lee he asked me my name, date of birth and place of birth. Vital facts that he stored in his mind for years. The fever that made him lose his eyesight may have pushed another part of his brain into overdrive, because he had a thing for dates and for music, an incredible memory bank that held lyrics and birthdays. He could tell anyone what day their birthday was going to fall on this year and next year. When I saw him in last April, he told me that in 2015, my birthday would be on a Friday.
          “Your name is Maria Trombetta and you were born on January 30th in Santa Rosa, right? You are married to Jonathan Palmer and his birthday is September 9th and he was born in Baltimore. Is his sister still Diane Bowcher and her birthday is March 31st?”

The first time I saw him at the Neighborhood House day program, he was sitting scrunched up in a corner next to a CD player, grumbling about having to listen to the Beach Boys over and over again. His head was folded down to his chest and his arms were wrapped protectively over his red lunch bag that hung from a black strap around his neck. He was small, slight, with dark short hair. I was stationed on a chair in the hallway, doing my “observation”—a week long training that consisted of sitting and watching what was going on, watching the dramas of thirty-five unique lives play out on a six-hour stage. Dickie Lee was in the art room, the room designated for quieter work, which also seemed to hold the people who were able to retreat out of the main room’s chaos without drawing attention from the staff. So most of these folks were either napping or doing mosaics with dried beans and glitter glue. Once in a while, usually on their way to take someone else to the bathroom, a staff person would pop in to the art room and press play on the CD player. I don’t know how long the Beach Boys were in there before I started my “observation” but it was on repeat for two days at least before Dickie Lee freaked out. The Boss was taking him upstairs to the van, arms linked together to guide him, when he turned his face up towards hers and let her have it.
          “I don’t wanna listen to the same goddam songs over and over! I’m gonna blow this place up! I’m gonna blow all you up!” He pulled away from her, elbows out and free and stretched himself taller.
          “I’m going to blow it up!”
The Boss hustled him into the elevator, promising new music tomorrow in a syrupy voice. I heard her start humming a song and by the time they reached the lobby Dickie Lee was singing, “Sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time …” with gusto.
          I made a mental note to change the CD every hour. At the end of the week I was allowed to go in the art room. Dickie Lee refused to move out of his chair, but while I was painting with Albert or helping Monica with her magazines, we would sing with each other. Mostly Beatles at first, because those songs I knew well. Then after a few months, we branched out to Creedence and the Rolling Stones and by then he would stand up and paint with me.

Do you remember when we went on the summer trip to Santa Cruz and I convinced you to ride on the Merry-Go-Round? You got stuck getting off the horse and kept shouting that your leg was going to break? I had to lift you up in the air and wiggle you off the horse and heave you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. You said I saved your life.

The doctors say cancer has spread to his brain and he has maybe two months, maybe less. I have to go see him. I don’t want to go. He is receiving hospice care at his group home. My impression of group homes is that they are one step up from nursing homes, with plastic covers on the furniture and a lingering smell of pee. I don’t want to see him hurting and angry and belligerent. I don’t want to see him dying the way I saw Bill dying in SF General, shriveling up in the bed, or Albert, lost in his own mind and furious at everyone in the world. I dread calling his home. But when the phone rings, a really nice woman answers. She says yes, of course I can come visit and is this Maria Trombetta? I answer her, sounding I’m sure, confused.
          “He talks about you all the time. My name is Maria too. He always says to me, ‘But you’re not Maria Trombetta’.”

I cry when she hangs up. Even after I’ve been gone for five years, you must talk about me the way I talk about you. Telling small legends of our lives to other people.

When I introduce myself, people either forget my name instantly or start singing one of the songs associated with it. “Maria” from West Side Story is the most common for men between the ages of fifty and seventy, “Ave Maria” for the older folks who fancy that they can really sing, “Take a Letter, Maria” by a few obnoxious people, once the Blondie song by a slightly blitzed bartender, but the most common and horrible, from The Sound of Music, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”.
          This song was my sister’s weapon of choice for many years. She was clever with her forms of torture and as siblings do, knew what drove me to tears. The brown plastic Fisher Price record player placed just above my head on the dresser. She held the record like a trophy out in front of her, just out of my reach. One, two, three waltzing twirls around our bedroom she spun, pretending she was Julie Andrews on the mountaintop. Green shag carpet tickling my feet as I jumped for it, trying to swat it away from her.
          “Nooo!” I wailed.
Laughter. Evil sibling laughter.
          And as a child, I didn’t know that the nuns in the movie were worried about her free-spiritedness, or really why the nuns would care. All I heard was a nasty, mocking voice telling me that I was flighty and stupid and a big pain in the ass. When people sing it to me now, I have to stand there with a forced smile on my face and wait until they get through four or five lines before they forget the rest of it. Then they finish and I am still standing there, wanting to flee, and they always, always laugh a shrill little laugh. Like the song was a really funny inside joke.

I had been working at the Neighborhood House with Dickie Lee for two years when The Sound of Music appeared in a pile of videos after a trip to the library. I cringed and put Ben–Hur on top, hoping it would disappear. But, one movie day, somebody slipped it into the VHS machine. A great, green whirling Julie Andrews started singing before I could stop her, and Dickie Lee sat right next to the speaker on the T.V. I made a point to clean the bathrooms for a long time that day to avoid it.
          When the movie was over (well, we decided it was over after the goatherd puppet performance, since everyone but Dickie Lee and Rene had fallen asleep), Dickie Lee started humming the soundtrack. Days of humming, humming, humming. Songs that he had not heard in years, songs that had been displaced by Phil Collins and Elton John, they all came back. He hummed them all in a loop, until one stuck. The Maria song. Patting my arm, he hummed it. Coloring his sunrise pictures, he hummed it. It wormed its way around his brain and dug in. And then, after about a week of this, a week of me dreading that it would happen, it happened. He started singing. Quiet at first and then loud enough for the room to hear.
          “DA DADA DU DA DU DA DUUDO!”
Oh no. Oh no.
          “DA DA DU DU DU DA DU DOOO!”
I felt my face turn red hot, an instant sunburn. I wanted to hide. I wanted my name to be Julia, Rhonda, Sarah, anything but Maria.
          But this is what came out of his mouth.
          “NOBODY solves a problem like MA--RIA! NOBODY can catch a cloud and pin it down! NOBODY SOLVES A PROBLEM LIKE MA—RIA! Nobody holds a moonbeam in her hand.”
He lurched out of his seat and stood in the middle of the room, reaching his hands out for me, wobbling back and forth as he sang. I grabbed his hands and he pulled me in real close, arms crooking around my neck, chin stubble scraping my ear.
          “Nobody! Nobody solves a problem like Maria Trombetta!”

Were you the first person who made me feel loved?

I ring the bell on Tuesday and the other Maria opens the door. She is just as nice in person and the home is clean and beautiful, thank god. She brings me into his room and hooks him up to the oxygen tank so he can talk and breathe at the same time. He is in a reclining hospital bed, eyes open. I sit next to him and he doesn’t turn towards me. He looks smaller, face shaved, stubbly black hair cut short, a small sixty-six-year-old man sinking in to himself. I see the postcard of the Skunk Train I sent on the floor next to the bed, so someone must have read it to him. I rest my hand on his upper arm and try to think of something to say.
          “I heard a Billy Joel song on the radio today.”
          “Which one?” He rolls his head slightly back and forth towards me.
          “Piano Man.” Which is not true, it was “Only the Good Die Young”, my least favorite and too real for this moment. I suddenly can’t think of anything to talk about. I feel awkward and sad. His white t-shirt has a tiny spot of dried blood on it, right under his ear. I look at his dresser and the CD’s stacked up on it in desperation for a song. Journey? Is it possible that I will cry now every time Journey comes on the radio? He saves me by belting out Tina Turner unprompted. We sing “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and move on to “True Colors” and “Joy to the World” and “Stand by Me”. He tries to whistle “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” but the oxygen tube is in the way and he starts clawing at it. I hold his hand and convince him to leave it in. We talk about when I came to San Francisco, and he remembers that I worked at the cafĂ© in Noe Valley with our friend Max, who later got a job at the Neighborhood House after I put in a good word for him with the Boss.
          “Max Doyle was born on October 5th in Washington D.C.”
          “You are right, Dickie Lee. When I started working with Max, he was only nineteen.”
          “He is thirty-three now. Just turned thirty-three.”
           I notice the tiny hairs on his scalp and how they have thinned over the years. I suddenly see an image of my father in a hospital bed, hair falling out, skin yellow, propped up on pillows and me by the side, rails digging into my arms. What will I sing to my father when it is his time? “Blackbird”? “I’ve Just Seen a Face”? The fear of that day hits my stomach and I feel like I can’t breathe. This is coming for everyone, everyone I know and love and it is my job to watch and hold their hands and then be left all alone.
          An hour goes by of us singing and talking and by the end of it I feel like no time has passed. We were right where we always started. But I know I should go now. His breathing is off and he seems tired. I say that I will come back next Tuesday to visit. The other Maria adjusts his oxygen and looks at me with big eyes and tells me to please come back next week, that he will look forward to it so much.

I was ready to come visit you on Tuesday, October 14th, I made plans to leave early and my bag was packed. I called your home and Maria answered again. She said she was sorry. It was fast. You died on October 10th, a Friday.

Maria Trombetta is a graduate student in the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about the Sonoma Developmental Center, one of the last institutions in California that houses people with developmental disabilities. She received her B.A. in Journalism from San Francisco State University and has written stories for the Oakland Tribune and the Sonoma Index-Tribune. She abandoned the city for the country and now lives with her family three hours from civilization, on the wild coast of Northern California.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Step Over

by John McCaffrey

The best year of Allen Iverson’s life was my worst. Determined to shed a “me-first” image, AI had bought into a team concept under new coach Larry Brown and propelled the underdog 76ers into the 2001 NBA Championship series against the star-powered Los Angeles Lakers. On the way, he had won the All-Star and League MVP trophies, dazzling fans and fellow players with his mercurial quickness and relentless offensive attack. He was relentless and fearless going to the basket against much larger foes, flinging his tat-laden, skinny body into thick seven-footers, finding a sliver of an angle to arch the ball up and under massive arms, taking the invariable hit, and falling, his cornrows glinting in the arena light, like a spent bottle-rocket. The miracle was never that the ball went in, which it almost always did that year, but that he got up off the floor after such a beating. But he did, every time.

For a while that year, I wasn’t sure I’d get up. Not literally, but emotionally. The hit I took was my wife leaving me, and while it might not have been as breathtaking as an AI swoop to the hoop, it had still been a six-year journey together as a married couple, and it hurt to have it end. Basketball helped to relieve the pain: watching, as well as playing. Like AI, I was a guard, and while I held none of his absurd athleticism, I could move well, dribble well, and shoot, I must admit, very well. I excelled in pick-up games, or at least held my own, and while I had never stopped playing once I got married, my forays to the court multiplied, and intensified, after my separation. I literally wore sneakers out, and nearly my knees and feet, but the game, the competition, the sweating and striving, helped me let go of tension, ease depression, and forget my troubles for a while.

Nights were spent scouring the television for games, and, as I had gone to school in Philadelphia (Villanova University) I gravitated toward the Sixers, and, naturally, AI. He was an underdog and so was the team that year, overachieving and winning games in bunches. I identified with them and felt inspired by them—if they could beat the odds and make a run for a championship, I could surely overcome my grief and feel good again. But like an NBA season, it was a long haul—feeling good again, that is. There were times when the grief was overwhelming, and with it came doubt and insecurity. Bouts of sadness led to fits of anger, tears produced clenched fists. I hardly ever felt comfortable, or at peace. I had trouble enjoying things I always enjoyed: reading, writing, even day-dreaming. About the last thing I wanted to do was spend time in my head, but that’s the only place I seemed to dwell, deep inside, a dark place. It was like a self-inflicted prison sentence, and my pain was the warden. Break time from this metaphorical cell came from hoops. The basketball court was “my yard,” a place where I could breathe fresh air, even if it smelled of sweat, where I could loosen my limbs, release anxiety and let go of aggression, where I could feel like myself again, or at least as long as I held “winners.”

About the same time the Sixers made it to the NBA championship that year, I was taking steps forward, small, incremental movements of progress, moments when my shoulders would release tension and I would take a whole breath in, rather than just an anxious sip. The growing sense of ease encouraged me to take chances, to be less isolated, to think again about a life lived and not hidden from. To this end, my family had a vacation house out in the Hamptons, in the bucolic town of Wainscott, just a mile from a beautiful beach and the Atlantic Ocean. It was just after Memorial Day, the start of the summer season, and I had a hankering to go there and spend the weekend away from City life. I also was looking forward to playing basketball.

Wainscott, at that time, contained in its small confines one of the few remaining one-room school houses in the country (it since has added a separate building to accommodate an increase in students), and on the grounds was a sun-bleached (and cracked) concrete basketball court. It was here that an evening hoops game was played every evening during the summer. There were no lights on the court, but from early June to late August games would last until darkness, or until the players gave up from exhaustion. I was a habituate of the game, considered it my home court, and must have launched thousands and thousands of jump shots (during contests and alone) at those two rusted rims over the years. There were others who were regulars, but none as regular as me. I lived for the game throughout my high school and college years, never too tired from a summer job or from having too much fun the night before to be first on the court. Graduation from college, moving to Hoboken, getting a full-time job, and, eventually, getting married, limited my time in the Hamptons. But I still put in enough weekends to maintain a presence at the evening game, gaining comfort in its continuance and my place in its history.

That Memorial Day weekend, 2001, I left New York City on a Friday afternoon, taking as a mode of transportation the Hampton Jitney, a bus by any name, but one jazzed up, perhaps, by its destination, the haughtiness of the mostly wealthy riders, and the provision of free orange juice and peanuts for the just-over-reasonable fee. The Jitney was good for me because it dropped me in Wainscott, and I could walk to my house. It was something my ex-wife and I liked to do, that walk, easing the transition from the cacophony of the City, the long bus ride (always traffic on the Long Island Expressway), enjoying, finally, the quiet calm of passing under a tree-lined, non-lighted street and, when conditions were right, the distant sound of ocean waves finding the shore. This was the first time in years I had done the trip solo, and, truthfully, the first time I would be at the house alone for such a long weekend. It was a bit daunting, but I comforted myself that it would be good for me, give me time to reflect, and, mostly, play lots of basketball.

Unfortunately, for the first part of the evening, time alone was not good for me. I paced the house as the sun dipped in the sky, starting to feel sorry for myself, thinking about my ex-wife, feeling sad and lonely. I finally called my parents, not wanting to worry them about my state, but to connect and let them know I was safe. Of course, I worried them. I wept openly to my mom and dad, telling them all my struggles. They showed their support  for me, let me know they loved me and that I would be okay, and my mother, in infinite maternal wisdom, told me there was a casserole dish of baked ziti in the freezer. I hung up and felt better. It was enough to give me an urge to take a jog. I laced on sneaks, shorts, T, and with headset on, took off.

I had never run so hard and for so long in my life, not before, and not after. Sweat and fury poured out of me, and when that was extinguished, out came all the other emotions I was holding. By the time I made it back to the house, more than an hour later, covering at least ten miles, what was left inside me, what I felt, was one thing: relief.

I was also starving. Remembering my mother’s suggestion, I took out the ziti and popped it into the microwave. Then I turned on the TV. About the time the ziti was ready to eat, Game One of the Lakers vs. 76ers was starting. According to the announcers, and just about anyone who followed the game, it was going to be rout. So dominant were the Lakers that season (they had won twenty games in a row), and so stellar was the play of their two stars, Shaq and Kobe, and so steady their coach, the renowned Zen-Master, Phil Jackson, that few, if any, gave the 76’ers a chance to win even one game. A sweep, it seemed, was inevitable.

Which was what the LA faithful, including Jack Nicholson and other Hollywood glitterati, were standing and chanting in unison before the opening tip that night at the newly-opened Staples Center: “Sweep, Sweep, Sweep!” The sound of their chanting reverberated throughout the arena, like a Roman Coliseum crowd calling for a fallen gladiator’s head. But as I gorged on ziti, still clad in my sweat-drenched shorts and shirt, it was clear the 76’ers had not gotten the message, were not defeated yet, at least not that night.

And it was all because of AI. Basically, he played out-of-his-mind, doing everything he did all season and more, taking it to the rack with fearlessness, ball-hawking on defense, breaking down defenders and causing uncontrolled chaos on offense. His brilliance willed them to overtime, where he hit the shot that has been since called the “Step Over,” a far-right baseline corner juke of a “j” over a fallen, “ankle-broke” Tyron Lue, the then back-up point guard for the Lakers, and now head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were just two of the forty-eight points AI scored that night, butthe most memorable. Sportsmanlike or not, what AI had done, after hitting the j, was take a giant monster-truck stomp over Lue’s prostate body. I saw it not as bravado, but defiance, an unwillingness to concede to a more powerful enemy, a David vs. Goliath triumph (even though Lue was shorter). I stood, and with ziti sauce caked to my mouth, cheered like a maniac. Then I cried. I cried and cried and cried. And at the end, just like my run, what I felt was one thing: relief.

I finally did clean up that night: showered, went to bed, and set my alarm. There was supposed to be a special game the next morning, at nine am, and I planned to get there early, to warm up and be ready. But when I got there, and waited and waited, no one showed up. My information had been wrong. There was no game that morning. Rather than go back home and risk feeling depressed again, I ventured to the far right baseline corner and started to shoot jumpers, and, whenever one hit the mark, I emulated AI, lifting my leg up and stomping over my imaginary, but very real foe, feeling, at least for that moment, defiant and in control.

John A. McCaffrey grew up in Rochester, New York, attended Villanova University in Philadelphia, and received his MA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. His stories, essays and book reviews have appeared regularly in literary journals, newspapers and anthologies. His debut novel, The Book of Ash, was released in 2013. His collection of short stories, Two Syllable Men, was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2016. John is also a Development Director for a non-profit organization in New York City, and teaches creative writing at the College of New Rochelle's Rosa Parks Campus in Harlem. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. Find him @jamccaffrey.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

This House Burns Blue

by Gabby Vachon

My mother wears so much blue, it’s fucking ridiculous.
Her whole house is decorated in blue, so much so that she has a room called “the red room” because it lacks the hegemony of blue of its neighboring kitchen and laundry room.
People—like her sisters, her personal trainer, and the cashiers at the local grocery store—often remark upon the blue, even poke fun at it. But their criticism never bothers her.
She just smiles her famous tight smile and lets out a light suburban-mom laugh.

I don’t know for sure why she’s so attached to the color blue, but I have a few theories:

1. Blue may remind her of her childhood, as her parents were ardent Quebec separatists. If you don’t know much about Quebec politics, here’s a very basic overview of the Sovereignty movement, or at least my version of it, keeping in mind I am a pure-bread French Canadian who grew up in Montreal: French Canadian people made up most of Quebec, a large Canadian province; English people made up most of the rest of Canada. The Quebec provincial government was pissed at Canada’s federal government for a multitude of reasons (some rational, some lunatic) and decided to make the Quebec people vote twice, in 1980 and 1995, about separating the province of Quebec from Canada, making Quebec its own country. The vote failed both times, but the periods between 1970 and 1995 were wrought with aggressive discourse, xenophobia, and even terrorism.

My mom was born into a house with a big blue Fleur de Lys flag (the official Quebec flag) planted on its lawn. She had been cradled in this flag; it was her first toy, her first friend, her first truth. My grandparents made phone calls for the Separation party, hosted events, and were even investigated in relation to terrorist acts on federal representatives. The big blue flag, separated into four corners, represented a people she could call her own, through childhood all the way through young adulthood. She was proud Separatist.

Then she moved to Toronto to study. She met my dad, an anti-Separatist to the core of his being. She learned English. She got a good job. She read more than what was available in her childhood home and French Catholic convent high school. And slowly but surely, she changed her mind.

This house that was once unified by Separatism had fragmented. She fought brutal political wars with her parents and siblings, with whom she remained, despite the political divide, very close. These fights hinged on identity, on the very idea of belonging, on the very notion that the family had come from the same blue roots and beliefs, yet couldn’t agree to the same nation state.

The Canadian political climate calmed after 1995, the year I was born, and my parents moved back to Quebec. They settled in a nice English neighborhood. They raised a nice bilingual family. They held nice Christmases with my mother’s family, tiptoeing around the glass shards of a once unified familial political belief.

I know she would deny it if confronted, but there is still a fragmentation inside my mother’s heart. There were nights of endless fights that don’t escape nightmares even for fifty-year-old women with blue yoga mats and blue Mercedes SUVs.

A river runs through my mother’s heart when politicians mention a third referendum, and that river, though thin and filled with old rotten sticks and stones, runs blue.

2. Blue may remind her of my teenage years. When I was sixteen-years-old, I was admitted to a children’s psychiatric hospital. I was bulimic, depressed, a nervous wreck, and saw myself at the edge of something. I wasn’t sure what that something was, but it felt violent. It’s as much as you’d expect from any sixteen- year-old, really, but I was empty, and lonely, and suicidal, so the hospital, after I’d called an emergency hotline and met with their team a few times, decided I should be admitted for a week’s worth of treatment. They called my mother into a small blue room filled with many chairs. She sat in the one furthest from me, closest to the doctor. The psychiatrist then explained how my mother, because I was a minor, would have to go downstairs, sign me over to the hospital’s custody, and pack a few of my things from home, like homework, pajamas, and toothbrush.

My mother paused for a short time, though it seemed like forever, until she said: “What if I don’t sign her over? What happens then?” I couldn’t believe her reaction at first, but with thought, I could. My mother came from a generation that found disgrace in therapy, shame in weakness, and secrecy in suicide. There was no “sixteen-year-old girl who lives in a nice house with a nice family who goes to a nice school with her nice friends and gets nice grades” who was also suicidal. Whatever the problem, it wasn’t something a little bit of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps couldn’t fix. She believed that these doctors, with their sharp teeth and parent-shaming, would seek to destroy her blue-blood beliefs.

I saw my mother not as angry, but as scared. Scared of the small blue room that separated us, mother and daughter, blood and flesh, alive and, well, less alive. There were too many chairs. I could see it her in her eyes, that she thought there were too many chairs. There were too many chairs for too many therapists and counselors and psychiatrists with their Pfizer checks and pernicious hands. She didn’t want to believe this team of strangers could do a better job repairing me than she could, the one who had birthed me in a room not unlike this one.

The doctor answered her, looking at me directly: “Well, we are keeping her, whether you sign her off or not. We will take custody, but it is up to you how peacefully it is done.” And that was that. I stayed a week. My mother came during visiting hours and brought me awkward hugs and bowls of fruit.

That wasn’t my last time in a mental hospital, not by a long shot, and my mom has gotten better at handling the devastation each time. But I know in retrospect that it was in that moment when my mother understood she couldn’t contain my sanity in a clean Tupperware container. There was always going to be too much blue inside my heart for her to warm with her burnt banana bread or long heat-curled eyelashes. I was born a red-blooded girl, but numbed to a pale blue shade as I grew older; and though my mother wears her blue proudly, she also knows the color to be bigger than what any mother can fix.

3. Blue may remind her of the eyes of those she loves.

We are truly the whitest family on the block. We have light blond hair and alabaster skin, and, yes, blue eyes (except my dad, but we really have a hard time believing he’s actually physically related to us).

All my cousins have eyes like sapphire engagement rings, so bright and faceted you could neglect the possibility of divorce with one hefty check at Kay jewelers.
My aunts have eyes like Pillsbury chocolate chip cookie dough packaging, warm and sweet and definitely in danger of sugar rush and/or salmonella, depending on their mood.

My brother has eyes like an airy blue sky, free of trouble.

My grandparents have eyes like the Caribbean Sea, clear and distinct and free of pollution.

I have eyes like an angry lake, dark and moody.

And my mother, my mother has eyes so vibrant blue you can see the embrace of her safety.

You can’t slip on the blue carpeting in my house.
You can’t spill juice on the blue tablecloth.
You can’t hurt your back sleeping on the expensive blue mattress in the guest room.
You can try to escape it, certainly, but my mother possesses blue so potent you can see yourself in its reflection. You see yourself, and your family, and the cracks in your skins, and your smile lines, and your stress wrinkles, and your veins.
Those blue veins that unite us all: separatist, mentally ill.
Those bulging lines in our arms that trace our heritage from France to this home in the suburbs where my mother paints the walls in our honor.

For our sake, she wears her blue parka when it’s cold and her blue Speedo one- piece when it’s hot.
For our sake, she is monochromatic.
And maybe also for her sake.
After all, a dark blue Mercedes SUV is so much easier to clean.

Gabby Vachon is a writer and artist from Montreal, Canada. She has been published or has work forthcoming in Tiny Tim, Ink in Thirds, and The Corvus Review, among other publications. She is an editor for Soliloquies Anthology. Her favorite food is the skin around her cuticles, and she is happily and forever married to her true love Justin. Follow her on twitter @gabbyvwrites.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

So Long, Promised Land

by Michael Engelhard

Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.
— Ortega y Gasset

As the old year fades from view, I am busy boxing up things for my move to Alaska. Sifting through detritus accumulated over the years, I try to decide what is essential, what is too heavy or bulky, what can be left behind. Stacks of discolored photos quickly distract me from my task. Lost in reveries I shuffle these mementos of a love affair with the Colorado Plateau, an affair that began more than two decades ago.

I was exploring the Southwest in 1982, as a tourist. Smitten with the sublime light, the uncluttered space, the convoluted canyons and silk-and-steel rivers, I decided to live there some day. Life had other plans, but I kept gravitating toward the red rock gardens, where Moab became a haven of sorts. Eventually, I moved there for good. Following my conviction that a perfectly sized town is one in which everything—including wilderness—lies within easy walking or biking distance, I settled in Moab on the tail end of the uranium-mining boom. I felt fortunate, as this muscular and reclusive landscape became not only my home but also my workplace. During summers, I spent more days on the Colorado and its tributaries than in town. My working outfit as a river guide consisted of sandals and shorts. Peoples’ faces often lit up with envy when I asked them to step into my “office,” the raft.
   Too soon, I became aware that the Promised Land—like many other places these days—suffered from industrial encroachment and greed. The West’s troubled legacy revealed itself in cattle grazing the canyons inside a National Monument—“Escowlante.” Thumper trucks explored for oil, destroying delicate soils and vegetation bordering Canyonlands National Park. Politicians supported proposals to extract and process oil shale along the Green River’s marvelous Desolation Canyon. Commerce and people in garish outfits discovered my hideout, pronouncing Moab the Mountain Biking Capital of the West. For the longest time I denied living in a resort town, even when the annual Jeep Safari forced me and many other residents to flee town for a week to avoid traffic and the attendant mayhem.
    In synch with rising visitor numbers, the wealthy started to buy second homes in town. Property prices and taxes rose accordingly, forever placing the dream of a little shack of my own beyond reach. The cost of some frou-frou coffee drinks soon began to equal half the hourly wage dirt bags and river rats like me made in service industry jobs—naturally without benefits. Moab lacked a shoe repair place, affordable health care and housing, a food co-op, noise control . . . Instead it sprouted real estate offices, T-shirt and “art” boutiques, motels and gas stations, jeep, bike, and boat rentals. Mountain and road bikers rubbed sweaty shoulders with hikers, climbers, jeepers, base jumpers, skydivers, kayakers, rafters, golfers, and vintage car lovers. They all rubbed my nerve endings raw. They drank dry the bars, clogged the river and canyons. The off season—welcomed by many locals as a change of pace and reminder of why they had chosen this town in the first place—shrank year by year, cropped at both ends by mountain unicycle festivals and other bogus events. It got harder and harder to escape unwanted company in the Best of Beyond. I often wished my domicile could be famous (if famous it must be) for record-breaking pumpkins or the nation’s oldest hay barn.
    Revisiting a favorite haunt in the Escalante watershed the first time in ten years, I was appalled by the changes. Foot trails cut through crypto-biotic soil carpets, betraying people’s laziness, their need to shortcut across canyon meanders. They had not simply trampled single tracks but whole networks into each knobby surface. Some morons had clearly misread the BLM’s plea to leave behind nothing but footprints. At popular campsites, which appeared strangely denuded even for this arid country, wooden signs directed visitors to pit toilets installed—and hopefully emptied—by monument staff. The voices of nearby campers echoed around slickrock bends, undermining the privacy for which I had hoped. Aluminum pull-tabs and charcoal from illegal campfires had replaced the arrowhead fragments, potsherds, and centuries-old corncobs once safe in alcove vaults. On Cedar Mesa, cameras now eyed ruins and rock art, trying to catch vandals in the act. Elsewhere, fences guarded petroglyph panels, and walkways channeled tour groups.
    Faced with these changes, I realized for the first time that too many hikers degrade a wild place as easily—and permanently—as do too many cows. While it seems obvious and convenient to point fingers at off-road vehicle drivers, any sentient biped will have to admit that he or she is part of the problem. Homo ambulans, too, leaves nothing but traces and often takes peace and quiet from the backcountry.
    Even the Four Corners’ Navajo reservation, which long had been spared the worst excess—perhaps due to its “Third World feel” and user-unfriendly permit system—now suffers tourism’s side effects. A few canyons became accessible with guides only after a flash flood killed eleven visitors, possibly to avoid costly search-and-rescue missions or even more expensive liability suits; about a dozen more canyons were recently closed to all outsiders. Sadly, non-Navajos hiking without permits, harassing livestock, littering, and disturbing archaeological ruins brought on these closures.
    For years, I was still content to take paying customers down rivers and canyons. But I slowly realized that many, if not most of them, were only after the glossy skin, not the meat and bones, or—heavens forbid—the soul of a place. They considered wilderness a sort of outdoor gym-cum-tanning salon, a thrill ride with a picnic on the side, pretty scenery to write home about, or perhaps worst of all, just another checkmark on their bucket list of “adventures.” I’ve since heard of people who try to visit all fifty-nine U.S. national parks in fifty-nine days. My suggestion to them: spend fifty-nine days in one park—Grand Canyon or Gates of the Arctic. You might truly learn something.
    One Moab river company did not hire me because I was too outspoken in my “environmental convictions.” Vacationers did not want to hear about mining or overgrazing or hydroelectric dams. They wanted rapids. They wanted fun. They wanted gourmet food, horseshoe games, solar showers, and, if possible, sleeping cots on the riverbank or a little “canyon magic”—to hook up with a blonde river guide. The manager told me I would set a bad example for the younger guides and that his company was “pro-growth.” Later I heard that a luxury tourism conglomerate had swallowed the outfit. The former Moabite and critic of industrial tourism, Edward Abbey, named the spiritual price paid by those who depend on it for their livelihood: “They must learn the automatic smile.” I had a hard time with that, though it cost me some tips and the goodwill of my boss.I reached the low point of my guiding life during a Marlboro Adventure Team trip, an event for winners of a contest to promote smoking and rugged individualism in countries in which advertising for tobacco products was still legal. I prepared myself for trouble when I saw the trip leader remove the motor rig’s spare outboard from its box, which he then filled with ciggies and booze. The organizers wanted us to flip boats in the whitewater to provide the cameramen on shore with footage for commercials aired in South America. Between rapids, they asked the paddle raft guides to tie on to a motor rig that dragged boatloads of macho, hung-over, helmeted conquistadors to the next “cool” spot.
    Worst of all, though, I sensed, no, I knew I was part of the problem. My writing about the Four Corners’ besieged landscapes seemed to make little positive difference; simply educating the public would never provide a cure. As my Coyote Gulch visit had shown, the lofty goal of educating backcountry users about wilderness ethics and etiquette is based upon optimism with regards to human nature. Defaced rock art, scorched campfire rings, torn-out Wilderness Study Area markers, and fouled waterholes in even the most remote quarter quickly put dampers on such enthusiasm. I could not rid myself of the feeling that, by publicizing this region, I ultimately contributed to its defilement and destruction.
    An argument can be made that public lands need to be used recreationally to ensure their continued protection and funding, to keep them from rapacious developers or corrupt politicos. On the other hand, more than three million visitors per year might easily enjoy the Grand Canyon to death. There are no easy solutions to this dilemma.
                    Vandalized rock art panel in southeastern Utah (photo by author)

Some of the boxes that will hold desert keepsakes still have old addresses on them; I think half of all my belongings must be in transit or storage at any given time. When I see the labels, more bittersweet memories come rushing in. I’m reliving the anticipation and reluctance I felt when shipping these boxes off. Disenchanted with academic life at the postgraduate level, unwilling to objectify cultures, and unable to secure grant money for my Ph.D. project, I’d dropped out of school. There were few guide openings at the time for someone with limited experience and a great deal of competition for them. Opportunity called elsewhere, seconded by the desert’s siren song—I’d been offered an outdoor instructor position in a youth program in Arizona. With my moorings already cut, I followed the current. The rest is river history.
    I am aware that moving to Alaska—the destination for these packed boxes—is not a solution. The political climate in the Last Frontier State closely resembles that of the Beehive State. As a latter-day itinerant, I will become part of the problem there—it can’t be avoided. But approaching middle age, I feel that time is running out. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, I simply don’t wish to grow old without wild country to be old in.
    While moving to Alaska in mid-winter seems unwise, I cannot think of a better place to start the New Year—or a new chapter in life. Let it be cold. Let it be dark. Let summers be buggy. And let us hope we can keep some places wild.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

(photo credit: Melissa Guy)