AROHO: My Long Road Home

Well Dear Readers–I left Ghost Ranch and the 2013 AROHO Writers’ Retreat yesterday morning, pointed the Jeep north and just drove, grateful that I had nothing to do but steer and follow Siri’s directions to Provo (a strange place to end up after a week with women writers, but conveniently located).  I pulled into the Hampton Inn around 7:30, excited to sleep in a real bed, alone in my room with my own bathroom, so thankful I wouldn’t have to make the trek across the desert from my casita to the communal bathroom to pee in the middle of the night.

I’m still unpacking all that the week taught me, but I re-learned a few truths (and sometimes re-learning is the most painful and revelatory sort of learning):

  • Never judge a book or a person by its/their cover–what lies within is all that matters. As I sat and listened to all of the women who were brave and read their work, I was blown away every three minutes (the length of each reading). 
  • Ask for what we need. As I listened to AROHO founders Mary Johnson and Darlene Chandler Bassett throughout the week, their power and determination continued to impress me and to impress upon me the (for lack of a better word) miracles that can occur when powerful women decide to go after what they want. If we don’t ask, no one will know what we need.
  • Acceptance and self-acceptance come when we just do our thing, walk our own walk, talk our own talk and rest confidently in our (overused word alert) authentic self. 
  • Everyone has a story. The key to the story lies in the telling. 

I went to a writing retreat, but the work I did there had less to do with writing and more to do with simply being, in the quiet, in the desert (an apt metaphor if ever there was one), with myself.

    The Road to AROHO Day 8: Feel the Fear and . . . Well, Just Feel It

    I am an introvert. Being around lots of people exhausts me. And it terrifies me. I am not one for idle chit chat, not very good at the “getting to know you” niceties that appear to be second nature to most other people. I knew this about myself before I set out on this adventure, yet I was unprepared for the ferocity with which my inner introvert roared into action these past two days.

    Even though I am 50 years old, whenever I am in an unfamiliar place with a lot of unfamiliar people, I am transported back to my childhood, back to the days of trying to fit in at yet another new school, trying to look just right, say just the right thing, have just the right clothes, hair, shoes. I look longingly at the table where the cool kids sit and with dread at the empty table where my seat awaits. I keep my head down in the hallways and my hand down in the classroom.
    My instinct is to run away and hide, to pull my head back into my protective shell and wait.  I figure if I’m going to feel invisible, I may as well just be invisible. At least if I’m hiding, I can understand why no one approaches me, why no one sits at my table, why no one reaches out. If I am truly invisible, then I am in control. If you can’t find me, you can’t ignore me.
    These are my primal instincts. My educated, intellectual self knows better, knows that if I put myself out there, if I reach out, I will be met half way. Knowing this does not make it any easier. It does not matter that I am 50—I still feel five, ten, 15, 20, 25. I still feel too young to understand, like life is still a mystery that will resolve and clarify as I get older. When I do not have my friends, my family, my community to reflect back to me who I am, I am nothing. I am empty. I am older, but I do not understand.
    Virginia Woolf
    What frightens me most about this experience is that even when I do reach out (and I have), even when I have intelligent and reciprocal conversations with others here, I feel like my words are as silent as I am invisible, that my mouth opens up and the language evaporates, unintelligible and indecipherable. Even as others respond, at that moment I do not feel seen or heard, just empty and alone. 

    Evidently, this is my work, to welcome the fear, the loneliness, to invite them in and set them a table, and wonder what they have to teach me. Before great light, darkness. Before great relief, great pain.

    The Road to AROHO Day 6: I’m Here! Gratitude and a Few Other Things

    I pulled up stakes in Pagosa Springs late yesterday morning as I had to wait for my tent to dry out after Saturday night’s deluge. Fortunately the sun came out early and hot and I was on the road by noon. The drive from southern Colorado to northern New Mexico was surprisingly verdant and lush. As I wound my way through the San Juan National Forest, I breathed deeply, loving the aroma of pine needles baking in the summer sun. I could have been in Washington, everything was so green.

    As this trip has progressed, I’ve been making a list of the things I am thankful for, on this trip, and in general. Of course, I’m so grateful to SugarMama and her unwavering support of my dreams. I say “of course” but we all know that sometimes we need to hear (or read) the gratitude as well as know it. So, a heartfelt and loving shout out to Nancy, the best partner a woman could have.
    I didn’t plan this trip they way some of you might have. I didn’t make reservations ahead of time at any campgrounds. I didn’t have a list of stops I wanted to make a long the way. I set out with my only agenda being to get to Ghost Ranch and to have fun getting there. So, I’m very thankful that each night I found a safe place to camp, and in retrospect, each place was the right place each time. Every site had exactly what I needed that night whether it was solitude (helping me overcome my fears) or WiFi (so I could share my adventure) or laundry (so I wouldn’t smell) or showers (ditto).  I had to let go of my notions about camping—what constitutes real camping vs. what is practical and smart.

    I’m thankful for a hundred other things as well: my jeep (even though it sucks gas, it is reliable and FUN to drive and makes a nice makeshift place to sleep in the rain); the two tarps I bought on a whim—one has provided shade and the other a nice clean pad for my tent; the bottle of lotion I threw in at the last minute because my hands have been so dry on this trip; the lantern my brother gave me for my birthday last year—it is so cool, so compact, and so bright; my headlamp for reading in the tent; my bicycle—I debated whether or not to bring it, but it’s been awesome to have, and here at Ghost Ranch, it’s invaluable. This place is sprawling.

    My sleeping bag. I realized a few nights ago that I have had this sleeping bag since I was 19. That’s 31 years! My dad bought it for me for my birthday that summer in 1982—it’s a North Face bag, and it wasn’t cheap all those years ago, but it had a tiny flaw in the fabric, easily patchable, and so he got a great deal on it. It’s down and still has its feathers and plenty of loft. It’s warm. It has a history—we have been to Europe together, to the mountains, to the beach. We’ve camped with my parents, my kids, my lovers, my wife. We’ve been to the southwest, twice now. I suppose there are more technologically advanced bags, ones that will keep me warm even if they get wet, ones that won’t leave feathers on my pjs. And maybe someday I’ll get one. But right now, I’m thankful for this sleeping bag.
    Not everyone grows up camping, but I did. And for that I am thankful. My parents took me camping when I was just a baby and dragged me to the wilderness kicking and screaming when I was a teenager. We rode horses into the high country, fished in cold mountain lakes, and camped in the August mountain snow. I learned how to light a fire, how to make eggs on a camp stove, and how to set up a tent. I’ve slept in smelly pup tents surrounded by horse blankets for warmth and on straw in a huge canvas army tent with a stove in the middle. I don’t mind sleeping on the ground. 
    I learned not to touch the sides of the tent when it rains, how to dig a trench around the tent, and I know the importance of keeping my matches dry. I’ve also learned to pack a lighter. There’s nothing like the night sky in the pitch dark, and I’ve learned to get out my tent and look at the Milky Way.
    I’ve learned the art of self-sufficiency. There’s nothing more rewarding than sitting in my campsite, in my camp chair, drinking the camp coffee I made on my camp stove, and gazing at the surrounding countryside.
    And now that I’m here, I’m thankful for a safe journey, for the cooling rain (now that I’m not camping anymore), and for the adventure that lies ahead.

    Beyond Belief Gets a WaPo Review

    Beyond Belief Gets a WaPo Review

    Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religion, the anthology for which I am honored to be a contributor, just got a great write up in the Washington Post. Check it out and add some comments! One thing to note, the publisher added the word Extreme to the title. What do  you think?

    The Road to AROHO, Day 5: My Babbling Brook and A Couple of Other Things

    So, it poured last night and even though I had the tent set up, I had no faith in my rain fly and decided instead to sleep in the Jeep. Good thing I’m not any taller because it was a, shall we say, cozy fit. But, I and my bedding stayed dry and really did curl up with that growler of beer. I didn’t wake up until after 5, which to me, indicates a successful camping sleep.
    I woke up to a beautiful sunny day and set about getting the tent dry and then made some (way too much) oatmeal, which turned out to be more of a blueberry delivery system.
    Then I moved my chair into the sun and finished reading a book next to the babbling brook. One of the small children here asked me if I wanted to see her baby snake. I politely declined but thanked her for asking so nicely.

    Now, I’m going to pack up my dried out tent and head south to camp tonight at Ghost Ranch.  Can’t wait! Retreat starts tomorrow.

    On the Road to AROHO, Day 4: Chimney Rock, Riff Raff Brewery, and Camping in the Rain

    While I had a glorious day in Arches National Park yesterday, I stayed in a less than optimal campsite last night. I mean, yes, it had showers and laundry, but it was crowded and noisy, dusty and hot. I had an ideal camping experience in mind when I set out on this trip and thus far it has been elusive: babbling brook, shade tree, quiet, running water. I don’t even mind a pit toilet.

    Ironically, the quietest site so far was the one last night—even among all those people, I got the best sleep of the trip. Might have been the beer and the ear plugs, but people actually quieted down at ten. No one played loud music. No babies screamed as they did at the Utah Lake State Park on Thursday night. No one cooked goat at 1 a.m. or spoke Arabic in the middle of the night like in Idaho. I woke up at 5:30, amazed and refreshed, but still wanting something more idyllic.
    Today I set out early, leaving Moab before 7, so I would have plenty of time to scout sites. I put 200 miles in before noon, and that’s when I remembered: it’s the journey, not the destination, so after bypassing a few tourist spots and stopping at Mesa National Park for a mere 10 minutes (long enough to get a picture),  I vowed to stop at the next roadside attraction whether it was a park or the world’s tallest miner. Luckily, it happened to be Chimney Rock National Monument. I’d seen the rock rising stark above the verdant Colorado forest, so I didn’t hesitate to turn when the sign for the monument popped up.

    When I stopped to check in, the volunteer said I’d have to join a tour to go to the top and I almost declined, not being much into group outings, but I paid my $12 and drove up the mountain to the meeting spot. I’m glad I did since I got to put the Jeep in 4-wheel drive AND I had the top down. Quintessential Jeep Moment.
     I put on my hiking Chacos and grabbed the camera, afraid I was late, and not wanting to keep the group waiting. But I had time, so I went back to the car for a pre-hike snack and that’s when crabby volunteer lady told me there was no eating allowed. Really? No eating? Outside? In a park? I finished my granola bar and looked at her while I licked the melted chocolate off my fingers.
    I learned some stuff on that hike up to Chimney Rock—first off, the Chaco Indians lived there (I was wearing Chacos) and up at the rock, they built a huge great house out of tons of stones that they carted up the mountainside. The first archeologists to visit the site weren’t so industrious and when they ran out of firewood, they burned up the original wooden beams from the great house (not too bright).

    Also, every 18.6 years, the moon appears between Chimney and Companion Rock, so the place held significance for the tribe. They could also see directly across the valley to a large mesa, some 60 miles away, and evidence around the site indicates they communicated via smoke signal to their compatriots there.   
    Happy to have stopped, found some amazing scenery, and learned some stuff too, I set off again toward Abiquiu. But then, in Pagosa Springs, I spotted a brewery called Riff Raff (like I could resist that!) and since it was lunch time, I stopped. Again, it’s the journey, right? I had a lovely black cherry porter and a delicious hamburger and then I tried their Kolsh. Also very good. Lest you worry, dear reader, that I drank and drove, I stretched that meal out over two hours before setting off again, to find the ideal camp site.
    I thought I’d found it. Babbling brook. Trees. Grass. Fairly quiet (after I told that one little girl she was being too loud, too close to my campsite). And WiFi, flush toilets, and showers. This was it, dear reader. I pitched my tent, put the roof on the Jeep, and settled into my camp chair with my book.  And things were great, for about a half hour.
    That’s when the sky darkened and the thunder clapped. Then the lightning. And now, the torrential downpour. My tent is still out there in the downpour, and the guy (there’s always a guy) just came into the common area (where I sit typing) and announced that the rain apparently is here for the whole night. As is more lightning and thunder.

    So, here’s my plan: to hell with the tent (and thank god I didn’t put my sleeping bag in it yet), I’m sleeping in the jeep tonight—I’m cuddling up to the cooler that holds a growler of that beer and calling it a night. Really glad I had that burger earlier, too. 

    On the Road to AROHO Day 3: Sandstorms, Guns, and Pretty Rocks. Oh My!

    Well Dear Reader, I made it a little over two days without a shower, but now I am happily ensconced in a faux campground replete with showers, a pool, laundry facilities, and Wi-Fi. I will not avail myself of the pool (too many children and we all know what that means), but I’ve taken a shower and it felt so very good. Now that I’m all shaved, showered, and FDS’d, I’m sitting in the A/C and waiting for my clothes to get clean. It didn’t take long for me to start sweating again after my shower, but the bonus is that I can take another one. And another one if I want. I know I’ll take one more before I leave, for sure.

    Yesterday, after I left the Starbucks in Twin Falls where I last posted, I made my way south, through Salt Lake City and Provo to camp at Utah Lake.  The drive through SLC proved harrowing as there were 50 mph winds and a dust storm (and I hit it during rush hour) and with it fairly low visibility. I was very happy to not have taken the top off the Jeep. I have to say, Utah drivers are insane. Didn’t seem to matter that dust was flying and cars were being blown about on the interstate—they still zoomed along at 85 mph.
    I had to get off the freeway for a while, just to take a break and regroup. It’s a little unnerving when the hood of the Jeep gets hit by a gust hard enough for it to strain against the rubber straps that hold it down.
    I’d had a text conversation with my brother, who just happens to be in Denver this week. He had read my blog about staying in scary Idaho and recommended I sleep with a gun rather than with a hunting knife. I ran that foreign thought around in my head for a bit. I’m not much for guns, but still, I worried for my safety, and there was Cabella’s, so what the hell. I pulled off to have a look.
    For starters, even the smallest guns run $350, far more than I wanted to spend (yet, I asked myself, what is my life worth?) I looked around furtively, not really wanting to engage with a salesperson, and decided that since I’d not handled a gun, let alone pulled a trigger, since I was a kid (seriously, I had a rifle when I was 12 but that’s another blog) I’d probably be better off just staying at less remote campsites.
    So here I am in Moab, practically in suburbia, in a family campground full of children, but unarmed and feeling safer.
    I spent the day driving to Arches National Park—I took the top off the Jeep since the temperature seemed to be hovering around 80, and cranked the stereo, happy to be on the road. Happy to be headed to AROHO.

    On the Road to AROHO: Feel the Fear (and the Heat) and Go Camping Anyway

    Good late morning from Twin Falls, Idaho, Dear Readers.  I’m about a third of the way to my destination, Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM.

    Let me just start by saying that if you’re in menopause and experiencing random and frequent hot flashes, camping in the desert southwest might not be the best way to travel the 1700 miles between Bellingham, WA and Abiquiu, NM.  Too bad I didn’t consider this issue before I was pitching my tent in 102 degrees last night.
    I’ve been planning this trip for several weeks, but somehow camping in the heat didn’t really cross my mind. Perhaps because I’m a PNW “blue-tarp” camper. Whenever I think about camping, all that comes to mind is rain and cold, wet sleeping bags and damp fires that never quite get started.
    Nonetheless, I had a somewhat satisfying camp experience last night—I managed to get some sleep, at least until some Muslims pulled in around 1 a.m. and started cooking goat.  I kid you not. I listened to these two guys speak in a language I did not recognize before some English speaker started talking to them. As I lay there not sleeping and cursing their bad campground manners, I learned a lot about middle eastern cooking and spices, the Muslim response to 9/11 (at least these Muslim’s responses), and why these two young men were going to college in Idaho.
    Ironically, the fact that two middle easterners were camping in the remote hills outside of Boise actually made me feel better about my own choice to camp alone. If they weren’t afraid, I wouldn’t be either (though I did sleep with my hunting knife within reach). I have to say, there was so much unsolicited consternation about my decision to drive to New Mexico that my confidence started wavering soon before I left, and as I looked for a suitable camping spot last night, I had to beat back my fear.
    I thought a lot about Cheryl Strayed’s adventures in her memoir Wild—what she had to say about Fear came rushing back to me as I set up my camp and perused my surroundings:  I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.” 
    So, fear conquered, at least last night. I woke up partially refreshed, made myself a thermos of coffee and hit the road.  I stopped at a payphone to check in with my sweetie since there was no cell service, and steered the Jeep toward Salt Lake City.
    This morning I thought I might get a hotel for the night, but as of this writing, I’m not so sure.  If I can camp in 102 degrees in remote Idaho, surely Utah has even better experiences to offer.

    Some random observations: it is far too hot to take the top off the Jeep which is rather disappointing. I have to stop every hour or so and scrape the dead bugs from my windshield.  Gas is getting cheaper the farther south I go. Drivers here are much more polite and aware than drivers in Washington State (i.e. they move over and don’t hog the left lane on general principles). The landscape is very dry—many side of the road fires, and one very large one near my campsite last night (extinguished the day before I camped).

    Daniel F**king Boone, Lesbian Pioneer

    This morning, I woke up early, the result of a nightmare. I haven’t had a dream that I can remember for months now, but there was a grizzly bear in my early morning REM, pointed out to me by the bobcat that was in my house. I hate waking up in fear. It makes it that much harder to roll over and go back to sleep, so to ward off the boogey men (and bears), I turned on the light, put on my glasses, and fired up my iPhone so I could read the news.

    As if the news would make me feel better. Yesterday morning, I read about two little boys who were squeezed to death in their sleep by an escaped python. I hoped things would be better this morning. And they were. On (still listed in my favorites bar as MSNBC), is a story about how difficult it is for same sex couples to get divorced.

    Normally, divorce isn’t cause for celebration, but this article warmed me to my very core because it validates my story and the reason I’ve been working on my memoir. For years now, my writing coach, mentor, and friend has been telling me that I was a pioneer, Daniel-Fucking-Boone is how she put it, and here is proof, validation from others inside the struggle, that indeed, I was a pioneer and that as a matter of fact, gays and lesbians who want to get divorced are STILL pioneers all these years later. Which makes my story, though it is 16 years old, relevant.

    One of my biggest fears in writing my story about my lesbian divorce and custody battle was that I’d be a big old caution sign on the road to same sex marriage equality. Don’t get me wrong—I think it is high time that gays and lesbians who want to get married finally get the same rights and protections as straight couples. But I also know from experience that just because we have those rights suddenly conferred upon us, the legal system isn’t going to automatically know what to do with us when we want to get a same sex divorce.

    I know because 16 years ago, I tried. Obviously, I wasn’t legally married to my lesbian partner 16 years ago, but I was the legal adoptive parent of two children and had been in a relationship with the co-parent of said children for 10 years. Neither of us was the biological mother of either girl. We both had equal rights as parents, or so I thought. We both had been able to adopt because, as more than one lawyer or adoption specialist said there weren’t any laws against it.

    Same sex couples were not explicitly banned from adopting in Washington State as they were in other states in the 1990s, but that did not mean that the legal system had any idea what to do when two mommies split up and needed a custody arrangement. We bounced around from lawyer to lawyer, burned through multiple family therapists, mediators, and a guardian ad litem and depleted our savings accounts (or at least I did), before settling on a less-than-optimal parenting plan just to end the pain.

    As Susan Sommer from Lambda Legal points out in the article, same sex couples who are getting divorced, are pioneers, alone and without a map in this new wilderness. And while we may have embarked on our domestic adventures all starry eyed and idealistic, that idealism can fade fast when one is suddenly homeless and without access to her children. Add to that the financial woes involved (the costs of same sex divorce are currently double that of heterosexual divorces, and triple the cost if children are involved, according the article), and same sex couples with children certainly need to start thinking realistically about their futures and the futures of their children.

    It shouldn’t be a stretch. We have had to find our own paths to where we are now, many of us without the support of family or the legal system, and even now, when we might like to think the legal system has finally caught up, it hasn’t. We need to protect ourselves and our children. We can continue to learn from one another, as we have for most of history.

    I am going to start thinking of my story as an important road marker rather than as a caution sign. We don’t have to all find our own ways—there are trails and maps in this wilderness if we share our stories and go into the unknown aware of the dangers. As Elizabeth Schwartz, a Miami attorney who works with gay and lesbian families, says in the article, “sometimes divorce is the beginning of a bright new chapter for people.”