Determination: 2 Girls, 1 Hill, 1 Tree, and 1 Ladder

As children, my friends and I spent hours wandering the woods. We lived in rural Vermont in the middle of hills covered with sugar maples. One of my best friend’s families made maple syrup as part of their living—they collected their sap using draft horses. And it is with that friend that this adventure took place.

Far up on one of the hills behind her house, maybe a 40-minute hike across a river and bushwhacking through the sugar bush, was a monstrous tree. It was a Pippi Longstocking tree, a tree of wonder and stories. It was the most perfect tree for a tree fort you can imagine…and the branches didn’t start until 20 feet above the ground.

Those high branches spread out in such a way as to almost make a floor. My friend and I thought that if only we could reach those branches it would be the best thing in the world. We dreamed of hanging a hammock from those taunting limbs and eating a picnic up in the canopy. We thought about our future tree fortress on many occasions, staring up from the ground, until one day we contrived a plan.

Her father had a very tall ladder—one of those aluminum ones that has two sliding parts so it can get even longer than it appears at first.

We started in the morning. She took one end of the ladder and I the other. Those ladders, though hollow, are not light. We discovered this not long after crossing the river and starting up the hill. We also realized that zigzagging through trees was a lot harder when you are attached to another person by an 8-foot, stiff ladder.

We stopped occasionally. We argued about the best way to go through the trees. We sweated and got scratched by brayers.

And, after what seemed eons, we reached the tree. We lay the ladder against it, expanding it to its full length. We observed the ladder. We were scared. It was so tall and the ground wasn’t even. Surely, we’d fall if we climbed it. Surely, if we fell we’d die. We talked about climbing the ladder. About falling. About how amazing it probably was up there. “Fine, hold the ladder,” I said. And I put my foot on the first rung. I was shaky. It was high. My heart pounded. I got about 6 feet above the ground. I paused. The ladder felt wobbly. I wasn’t sure if I should keep going.

Slowly, carefully I reached the top rung. The branches were still overhead. I’d have to grab them and then swing my legs up and hang sloth-style to get up in the tree. I stood at the top of the ladder a long time. My friend first shouted up that if I wasn’t going to do it I should come down so she could. Then she suggested that we not do it at all.

I grabbed the branch and I swung up. “This is awesome!” I said, sitting and staring down at her on the ground. She joined me, with the greatest care because the ladder was unsteady, especially without someone holding it.

We sat up in the tree until we got hungry. The only reason we ever left the woods was because we were starved.

Some people will tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t bother with them. Someone else will help you carry a ladder.

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Springtime Rambling

My goodness how quickly time passes. It’s hard to believe that the last time I wrote was in the dead of a cold, dark winter—the hallmark of New England. I won’t bore you with the reasons why there was no time to write for so long, except to say that I know a great deal more about equilibrium, acid-base reactions, electromagnetism, circuits, batteries, optics, quantum mechanics, and special relativity than I did in February. Science.

Spring arrived in Vermont with the timidity of a mouse crossing a barren stretch—one step forward, three steps back. But, the soft, new leaves are starting to unroll; the grass needs to be cut, the flower gardens need weeding, and the fruit trees fill the air with soft scents. It’s the lilacs more than the tulips and daffodils that make me think the warm weather will stay a while.

The winter was long and cold. I dared not count the gray days that melted into rainy days between frost and flowers. It goes without saying that spring is a time of new beginnings and the return of the sun.

How I missed the sun! When I went on a walk today rays of golden light danced on the path between the yellow-new, pink fresh leaves. The spirals of young ferns lined the walkway and the damp mix of old leaves and new growth saturated the air. I paused on a bridge over where the river meets the lake. There in the flooded marsh lands a fish swam almost lazily in circles. It was over a foot long. A fin lined its back waving back and forth like a ruffle along its spine as it waved its tail. What a bold fish to be out in the open in eagle, kingfisher, and heron territory!

I’m sure you guessed, but the sun makes me think of Paraguay. I completed my one-year anniversary of my return to the States in April. This is my first full spring in Vermont in many years. And the humming of the frogs, bugs, and birds make me think that this coming year will not only be as productive as the last, but more hopeful.

It is a new beginning because I’m taking my learning out of the classroom. Not so long ago I started running as an EMT. I’m still quite a newbie, but I’ve learned that every patient is a puzzle, and that solving each puzzle is more thrilling than anything else I’ve yet encountered. To realize what I can do to help someone by looking at a few measures—for example breathing, pulse, and blood pressure—is far more interesting than piecing together the clues of a physics exam question.

I’ve been thinking these days about how much I’ve learned since last spring. This time last year, I could not have told you what a healthy blood pressure was or if 5 was basic or acidic on the pH scale. Today I know those things and a great deal more. But, for some reason, Plato’s Socrates and his comment about what makes one wise has been on my mind as I take my spring walks, a translation of which reads:

“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

The more I learn about the human body and illness the more I realize how much I don’t know. And what I’ve come to see, now that the frost has cleared, is that the doctorhood quest will not end when I pass my last board exam. It’s a quest for knowledge and better understanding that will only end when I stop practicing medicine. And despite the weight of learning so much for so long, the length and breadth of my journey does not seem daunting. I know that even if there are stretches like a Vermont winter as I make my way, they will always be followed by spring. After spring comes summer. And summer is full of life.

Photo Credit: my father

 

Winter In Vermont

Winter is defined by suffocating darkness. The sun rises hours after me and sets long before my work is done. The haze of dawn seems barely brushed from the sky before the long shadows of dusk push back the sunlight. But, despite short days, Vermont winters are beautiful and perhaps one of its key features.

When you enter the woods they are silent, not like a tomb, but like someone holding her breath. Frozen until spring comes. The snow crunches under your feet and the trees crackle, almost frozen. Sometimes the trees freeze, and when that happens their limbs splinter as whole colonies of cells explode.

On days when it snows, the daylight softens to the gray of twilight. Sometimes the wind drives the snow sideways like pellets, and other times the air is so still you can hear the snowflakes alight on your coat. The mist of snowflakes spreads a feeling of sleepiness. The animals find cover under the evergreens, and I settle by the fire when my hat and boots are soaked through from walking in the snow.

Sometimes it is too cold to snow. On those crystal days the air is so clear you can see the distant rounded mountaintops acutely, figures outlined harshly by the sky. The air freezes your nose hairs with each inhale. The wind gives you brain-freeze when it collides with the small patch of skin between your scarf and your hat. It is unbearable to take off your mittens because of the burning and numbness the air causes, so you simply learn how to navigate outdoor life with padded hands. On the coldest days, it’s a fight to stay warm. I must sleep under a pile of blankets. But, frozen days are good days.

The cold protects and preserves Vermont. The threat of harsh winters prevents people from moving here and therefore it ensures there is space for the streams that meander through expansive forests. The heavy frost and ice storms keep the mossy hollows and fern-blanketed forests safe from bulldozers, houses, pavement, grass, and hoards of people and their pets.

Other places have launched themselves into a more modern era with blind enthusiasm and as if shot by a catapult. But the cold makes one lethargic. Vermont is undoubtedly part of the modern world. But, we Vermonters enjoy new technology without thinking it necessary to replace the woods. We are happy to embrace the innovations of lifestyle and thinking that come, and yet we hesitate. And I think our tendency to pause comes from having weathered so many winters. We know what true silence is—it’s the forest on the coldest day of the year when the gray of morning almost shakes hands with the gray of evening.

Once you’ve encountered a truly silent place it stays with you. Unforgettable. No matter where you go the vividness of the place where you found complete silence comes to mind from time to time. And you realize that silence is invaluable and scarce. And you find yourself taking a moment to stop because you know deep-down that anything that would destroy the places where there is silence is terrible.

Happy Holidays

Spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year in another country and without your family for a few years and you’ll return with a whole new perspective about the holidays. I promise. I know. I did it.

You end up seeing clearly all the things you love about your holiday traditions. You also realize that the stress that often comes with the holidays is not required. The tension is something you add to the mix for a host of reasons, but is not inherent to the holidays.

Leaving the stress at the door is great, and I was only able to do it because I took a sabbatical. During my break, I had plenty of time to ponder all the things I love about the holidays, but especially Christmas with my family.

Top of the list was seeing everyone. This Christmas was special because I met my baby niece for the first time. She’s little and cute and the first of her generation in our family—needlessly to say she was the star. I also saw my brothers after over two years. Two years is a long time. The last time I saw them, one was in high school and the other was in college. They both graduated those occupations in May 2014. I left January 2014. Wow. Crazy, right? They both are taller than I remembered, and the younger is a giant. GIANT.

A close second is the food. I do Christmas Eve at my mom’s and Christmas Day as my dad’s. Both of my parents are fantastic cooks. We dine like the three kings. This year, my mom pulled out all the stops with the desserts—two types of pie, German chocolate cake, and chocolate mousse. On Christmas morning, we ate fruit cake and Christmas stollen. My dad served king crab, but this year I’m trying the vegetarian thing so I stuck to my favorite on the rainbow, orange. Specifically, squash orange. Some people get excited over steak and potatoes. I’ve always been a fan of squash and potatoes.

Next are the decorations. My family is full of artists—basically if you aren’t an artist you’re in the minority. What this means is that we have awesome Christmas trees and house décor. We aren’t one of those families that drapes their house in lights. But we have some great Christmas tree ornaments and we know how to place them just right on the tree. On Christmas Eve, my job is to decorate the table. I went for elegant this year—a garland and candles.

Christmas Eve we do fireworks and a bonfire. You should be jealous. It’s a perk of living in the middle of nowhere with snow all over—we can enjoy fires of all shapes and sizes with almost no risk of harm…this year one of the fireworks we set off did explode on the ground in many directions however.

Stockings. I love Christmas stockings, maybe more than presents. Why? Who knows, but it’s so fun to see all the little, silly things one can fit in a decorated sock. Tooth brushes, toothpaste, candy, tree ornaments, nail files…you never know what “Santa” will leave.

The morning. I’m a morning person. I usually get up early. On Christmas, I’m always the first up. I’ve overcome my childhood ways…meaning I don’t get up at 4 o’clock in the morning any more. This year I got up at 5ish. I love the quiet when everyone is sleeping and it’s just me, the Christmas tree, and the stockings. This year I finished embroidering a stocking that needed some love before anyone else got up. Victory.

My sister has changed and is now a morning person. Because she and I travel from our mom’s to our dad’s and split Christmas between them, the 26th is also part of Christmas at my dad’s house. This year, she and I finished making a pie before the parents got up. The crust had been in the fridge overnight and was rock-like. Luckily, my sister is buff—you should see her shoulder and arm muscles. She’s a professional fitness trainer—so she rolled out the crust like it was warm butter. I gave advice like, “If dirty dishes are in your way (when making pie) move them.”

It was nice to be home for Christmas. And, seeing as I was in Paraguay just before (and traveled 32 hours to get back in time for the 24th), it was even sweeter.

*Photo credit: Matisse, my brother.

Welcome 2017

You know, 2016 was a pretty awesome year. It was one of transition. My service in Paraguay ended and I returned to Vermont. As you may recall, I grew up in Vermont. I fled the state when I went to college. I swore I’d never return. But, minds and hearts change. Here I am. And, I’ll be in Vermont for a stint longer than I was in Paraguay.

So where does 2017 find me?

I’m in the midst of a post-baccalaureate, pre-med program. What does that mean? I’m taking the undergrad classes required to apply to medical school, which I didn’t take when I earned my BA in Public Relations.

The end goal? Becoming a medical doctor. But, one step at a time…

I guess we can say that 2017 officially marks the end of my Peace Corps journey and the beginning of my doctorhood quest. And it is a quest. A long, long adventure full of all kinds of tricky science and learning new things. Luckily, I gained some endurance and determination abilities while in Paraguay.

As always, I’m doing many things. I’m studying and working. I’m on the verge of becoming an EMT. Got my cert…now I just need a volunteer position. Further, I’m considering what other delights I can fit into my jammed schedule.

While I start 2017 as a busy bee, like every year I remember, this year isn’t about the work. Work is what I do, I’m just like that.

2017 is about attitude, not tasks.

We can’t know the future. Life is exciting because of tomorrow’s mystery. But, I have high hopes for 2017. And, despite some giant obstacles (not the least of which is a despicable human storming the Oval Office) I have some happy goals.

I’m expecting 2017 to be full of positive thinking and pep talks. That’s the nature of having hard professional and personal goals. But big goals aside, my main resolution for 2017 is to create moments of caring and sharing. What does that entail? Carving out time to spend with people I love. Smiling and seizing opportunities to discover new people to love. I know, it sounds wishy-washy. But it’s not. This year is simply about being happy as a human and sharing that happiness with others.

With that, let’s go 2017. I’m ready. Are you?

Photo credit: Carolyn Enz Hack

Convenience

“How is being back in the States?” friends and family have been asking since I got back from Paraguay. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer…just as I couldn’t explain what is was like to live in Paraguay when I first moved there. However, despite my general inability to describe my transition back to the USA, there is one thing that stands out to me about living in America: life logistics are incredibly simple. What I mean to say by “life logistics” is all the things we do to make sure our lives function properly— such as bathing, traveling between activities, and controlling house temperature.

In my new US home, I make up reasons to stay in the hot shower longer. It’s such a treat compared to my Paraguayan bathing ritual. In Paraguay, I stored water in a basin because for hours, many days, we didn’t have running water. Even when I did have water the pressure usually wasn’t enough to push water out of the shower head. And, because of this annoying water-flow problem I did not invest in a shower head to make hot water. So, 95% of the time I bucket bathed in cold water—using an old, plastic pitcher to dump water over my head. If it was too cold, I boiled several liters of water to add to my basin and bathed quickly. In America, I turn on the shower and the water comes pouring out every single time. The water is as cold or as hot as I want it to be. I don’t need to worry when a storm comes that I won’t have bath water or hesitate before exercising because I forgot to hoard water. In the great land between Canada and Mexico, showers are a given.

When I’m trying to get somewhere new by bus in Vermont, I type point A and point B into my smartphone. Then, Google tells me where and when to wait for the bus. The bus comes when Google says it will, and the fare costs exactly what the bus website said it would. In Paraguay, when I traveled to a new place by bus I asked 1 to 5 Paraguayans which buses to take, where to wait, and how much the fare costs because none of that information is available online. I asked more than one person to check the information and make sure I had the best route and detailed instructions to help me know where to wait for and get off the bus because there aren’t marked bus stops (usually). If I messed up my transfer in Paraguay, I had to start the process of asking for directions all over again. In Vermont, I can’t really get lost because I can check my travel progress on my phone periodically and then ask someone if I need more help.

It is spring in Vermont. Sometimes it is pleasantly warm and sometimes it is cold. If it’s cold, I turn on the heat. My house is insulated. The windows and doors block the wind. My roof doesn’t leak. My floor is on a foundation so my feet are shielded from the ground’s temperature. When I listen to the beep the thermostat makes as I turn up the heat, I think of my little Paraguayan house. The wind came through the shutter and doors. The walls were made of one layer of hollow bricks. My floor was a cement slab on the good earth. My roof was tile and let in the rain in some places if it was windy. It was always windy when it rained. On cold days in Paraguay, I put on two pairs of pants and all my jackets. Then, fully clothed, I sat under my sleeping bag and drank mate. That was my heat, blankets and hot beverages.

What is it like to live in America? It is comfortable. It is efficient. It is easy. It is sterile. The challenges of life logistics have been replaced with intellectual and trivial quandaries. Should I take a more-than-five-minute shower? Would I be a better person to bike rather than ride the bus? When exactly is it cold enough to turn up the heat rather than putting on another sweater?