Thursday, September 10, 2015

"How was Alaska?"

Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who
touched your life and every experience that entered it.
We are all part of one another. - Yuri Kochiyama
Weighing in at more than half a pound, my Hydroflask was most certainly an impractical luxury item for the 28-day NOLS Alaskan Wilderness Backpacking trip on which I was recently an Instructor-in-Training. As someone who is 4'11" and under a hundred pounds, every ounce really counts, even if I don't want it to. I am of the mindset that I'd rather go slower with more weight, making due with what I have, rather than go for a newer, shinier, lighter item.

That ideal has to shift when backpacking in a professional capacity, I realize now, but I don't regret bringing the heavy thermos with me. Our 120-mile journey through the Southern Talkeetna Mountains year olds culminated in a cold, rainy all-night hike, and the hot sugary caffeinated concoction I had was well worth the extra weight.

Of course, I won't be bringing it on my next professional trip.

I've been putting off writing a post about Alaska. The task of compiling almost a month's worth of learning and experiences into a comprehensible blog post or trip report has been daunting.

Here's an attempt to sum it up:

We hiked up mountain passes and down into valleys and back up into passes, again and again and again. We walked through icy cold creeks and crossed rivers together in eddy lines. We made cornbread and pizza and cinnamon rolls from scratch. I made cheesy pancakes and oatmeal chocolate chip pancakes and cinnamon raisin pancakes and accidentally made pancake pizza.

I got bruises on my hips and blisters on my feet and sun bumps on my left ear and the climber's bumps on my heels peeled and peeled and peeled. I read Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. I read excerpts of writing about the construction of wilderness that challenged my existing notions of wilderness, wilderness education, access. I questioned what I was doing there, what I wanted from the experience, what I felt about being the only woman of color on the trip, what I felt about continuing to pursue work with NOLS.

The summer solstice came at the midpoint of our trip. We didn't pack headlamps. We went to the toe of the Chickaloon Glacier. We saw places on our map where glaciers that were there less than 10 years ago no longer exist. We saw caribou and moose and eagles, and some of us saw grizzlies. We ended our hike at the confluence of the Talkeetna River and Iron Creek, where jet boats picked us up for an exhilarating ride to the town of Talkeetna.

Before and after the course, I stayed at the NOLS Alaska base in the town of Palmer, where we grazed on beautiful salads from the garden and freshly baked bread daily. I lived for a few days in a canvas wall tent before the trip, and in a 3-person Kelty tent for the few days I was there afterward. My co-instructor Deev and I practiced acroyoga a few times.

And that was my June 9th to July 19th.

I flew back to Long Beach, read some poetry at Tuesday Night Cafe, performed a wedding ceremony for my good friends, then promptly returned to the Bay Area.

In a few weeks, I'll be out on another backpacking trip, this time as a wilderness instructor for Eagle Rock School. A 23-day trip rather than 28. Again with teenagers.

I plan to apply for a NOLS Instructor Course. If accepted, I'll go on the 35-day course next year. There's still a lot I'm mulling over. What it means to be a woman of color in a historically white male institution. The idea that wilderness conservation displaces indigenous peoples from a way of life intimately connected to nature, and the reality that my parents, who collect rain water and grow practically half of the food they consume, are potentially--likely?-- more in tune with nature than the majority of people who consume the outdoors.

Aparna, former Diversity and Inclusion Manager at NOLS, recently wrote:
It’s one thing to want to make people of color aware of a world of possibilities, to put outdoor adventure on their radar, or even to work to create an inclusive culture in the outdoors that is welcoming to everyone. But it’s quite another thing to presume that of all their choices, people will somehow feel compelled to leave the comfort of a roof over their heads to “rough it” in the woods. Camping, like stamp collecting or painting or driving fast cars or dancing, is not for everybody. And. That. Is. Okay.
I have been thinking a lot about how I've bought into a particular way of consuming the outdoors, consuming wilderness, as a rock climber, as a backpacker, as an outdoor educator. And that there are experiences that I want to pursue that bring up contradictions that are difficult to reconcile. And that I can play a role in the pursuit of a more equitable world even from a place of contradiction. That life is a series of reconciliations.

I started this post with my thermos. The heavy, bright orange vessel made it through the 28-day trip without a scratch. Between the jet boat ride out and the present, however, it's gained some small dents and chips. The latest was a couple of days ago, when I knocked it off the driver seat of my car and onto asphalt as I was loading things. It occurred to me then that all of the dents came after what most would consider a more trying environment for keeping things new. But while I was backpacking, I took better care of it. I usually did only one thing at once. I knew that I had to "go slow to go fast," as my WFR instructor Mazie was fond of saying. I took care of things well. And since I've returned, I've caught myself many times trying to go too fast, doing things while distracted, being less than present.

The outdoors gets sold as a place to get away from it all, to leave the distractions of daily life, the leave the necessary frazzled-ness behind. We talk about how nature allows us to be more in touch with ourselves, so we must preserve these "pristine" areas so that we can go and rejuvenate ourselves and thus perform better in the society as it stands. But the wilderness reminds me that there are so many parts of society that need to change, that need to be calmer, that need to be less fixated on more, newer, faster.

In a few weeks, I'll be trekking through the Gila Wilderness with teenage students. I'll be sharing with them the values that I've reinforced through being outdoors and the skills that I've learned through NOLS and GirlVentures and my personal experience. I'll continue to be perplexed by the complications and contradictions of identity, politics, conservation, consumption, capitalism.

And that's it. There's not really any way to wrap a bow around it. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Into Outdoor Education

Scouting a climbing area with GirlVentures staff at Pinnacles National Park, February 2015
I'm bemused at the turn life has taken. Two years ago, I'd never imagined working in outdoor education. My work life very much revolved around being in the city, in offices and libraries and coffee shops. Then I got the opportunity to work a backpacking trip with GirlVentures in April 2014, shortly after which I signed up for a 5-day Women of Color Backpacking trip with Balanced Rock Foundation which was, amazingly, co-led by a badass Khmer American woman. On that trip and beyond, I met more women of color who integrate outdoor trip leading into their lives, both professionally and personally.

From the NOLS WMI WFR Handbook
After I went to live and work at NOLS in Wyoming for nine weeks and encountered even more people who spent a big part of their lives outdoors, and though only a few of the people I met were Asian American, I gained more of that sense of permission and possibility that I gained from the Balanced Rock trip. I then signed up for a WMI Wilderness First Responder certification course using the Americorps Segal Education Award I'd earned as a Public Ally in Los Angeles back in 2012 (everything is connected). The course would have felt prohibitively expensive if not for that, which is also true of the Balanced Rock course I took-- I received tuition assistance for that, as well.

This past spring, I worked as an instructor on three courses run by GirlVentures: climbing at Pinnacles National Park with 6th grade girls, backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore with 7th grade girls, and climbing at Castle Rock State Park with a mixed-gender group of high school students. It was exhilarating to spend all that time outdoors and to get to watch students transition from being squeamish about camping at all to happily digging catholes.

I would have loved to instruct on one of GV's summer courses if I weren't embarking on another trip on Wednesday: I'm heading to Alaska to spend 30 days backpacking in the Eastern Chugach Mountains with 3 NOLS instructors and a group of 12 students, age 16 &17. It will be my first time spending so long in the backcountry, my first time in Alaska, and my first time witnessing the NOLS progression.

I'm excited and nervous, which typically means I've made a good decision. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

After "In Defense of 'Busy'" // Life's Too Short to Hurry

Sean wrote about being busy.

The comings and goings and doings he describes are familiar to me. I'm not there any more, though. I can't say I'm busy in that way anymore. I'm not organizing or producing, and this month even my online writing has diminished as I throw myself into pottery (couldn't resist the pun). And the calm feels really good. Maybe it's part of my recently developed introversion.

There's that Howard Turman quote: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I surely felt alive when I had a busier lifestyle, connecting with many people, holding and sharing space in various ways. But there was a point when it stopped making me feel alive and mostly made me feel tired. And for a time I was sort of frustrated with myself for stopping, and I mourned the passing of that past self, and I tried to recreate the desire to live that way. But the resistance was not necessary. I was pushing myself to interact with the world in ways that made me feel tired rather than alive.

There was no need for me to push myself to try to be busy-- there are so many ways to contribute to society, to social justice, and different ways to learn about being human, both by being around people and by being alone with ourselves.

The intention I set for this year is "Life's too short to hurry." A reminder to myself that life doesn't have to be frenetic to be exciting, and that there is value in slowness. Even though most of my days don't have much externally-imposed structure, I still create quite a bit of structure for myself.

On Wednesday, I wanted to climb, go to a yoga class, repair some camping gear, spend an hour or two at the ceramics studio, and go to the grocery store before work at the climbing gym at 4:30pm. I also wanted to feed myself and maybe do a little reading. While I was in the yoga class, I was asked to set an intention for the practice and for the day. In the course of the class, I realized that I was imposing a lot of unnecessary urgency into the day. If I could only spend an hour or two at the studio, it wasn't really worth it to go. And if I didn't make it to the grocery store before work, I'd be okay-- there was plenty of food in the house. Once I let myself let go of that urgency, I could feel my mood improving, and things feel lighter. I felt better about the day.

I respect the folks who spend a lot of time working, studying, organizing, going from here to there and everywhere. And I worry a bit, too, when they say they are busy. I avoid being "busy" now because of the way it makes me feel. It makes me feel like there is great time-scarcity in my life, and feelings of scarcity in whateverthing, be it affection, friendship, money, or time, leads to stress. Which leads to a wide array of other negative health and social implications.

Granted, things aren't always light. There are a lot of very dark and heavy things that we must cope with and change in this world. What I fear about "busyness" is that it sometimes feels like being pulled down into that darkness rather than like reaching in and pulling that darkness up to our light.

And it makes me all the more appreciative of those people in my life who are able to be busy and at the same time pull the darkness to light. (Sean is in that group.)