The smallest girl in my English club stands on her tiptoes to try and reach the board, giving English her very best shot despite being only six and sitting in on her older sister’s class.
“Miss Maddy,” An older student whispers, and points at my stickers. Her eyes glitter. “Kareliey?” May I?
I nod and smile. She pulls off a sticker, and when the younger girl finishes correctly writing the answer, the older girl gives it to her. Watching from the back, while the students play an English game and help each other, I can’t help but be happy I am here, able to witness something as small as a sticker.
My girls from English club walk me home, and we do impromptu lessons along the way. We point at colors and they grin and shout them. They learn this is a tree, and this is a mountain, and this is a cloud. The sun darkens my forehead and I sweat like I’ve never sweated before, a bundle of wadded up conjugation posters in my arms.
“Miss Maddy, Miss Maddy, Inch e sa?” They ask and smile. When they run out of questions they quiz me on my Armenian.
“Goodbye!” I say when I reach the green door that is mine.
“Goodbye! Ts’aystyoon!” They call after me.
“See you tomorrow!” I grin back.
“What is tomato?”
“Che, tomorrow, vagha. Tomato, lolik,” an older girl corrects.
I laugh and go inside.
I think we’ve all got this tendency to love experience a little— to absolutely relish in foreignness, to play it up, to collect unique experiences like someone might collect coins, pushing pins in to a map like it proves something about yourself, like those pinholes are inherently meaningful.
No matter where you are, your experiences are important. And honesty, I am the same person here that I was at home, and the same worries and problems that I had there, I have here too. A new continent does not make me a new person.
Here, I still get lonely. I still take long walks and wonder if there isn’t something I should be doing differently or better. I wonder if I’m not wasting time that I could be using planning better lessons, or learning the language better. It’s hard to define what my job is for the summer, so it’s hard to quantify if and to what degree I am fulfilling it. I was hard on myself about a lot of things at home; I am still hard on myself here.
At home I used to feel stuck sometimes, and frustrated with the pace of time. I feel that here sometimes too. Just like at home, I get frustrated with myself, specifically with my language progress, and not seeing results the way I would like to.
All this isn’t to say that it’s not special here; rather to say that it’s special everywhere.
A girl who doesn’t know me at all leans on my shoulder and tells me a story, looks at me with big trusting eyes.
The stranger I meet on my run stops to talk and offers me some fruit.
I watch Moana with my students, three 13 year old girls, and they get to watch a young girl be the hero of a story, and see themselves in the storyline. They laugh at the funny parts, or pause the movie to help each other understand the new words.
It feels special when I can see my students excited about learning English and proud of themselves, or when my host family laughs at one of my clumsy jokes, or when the late night storm rolls in and the whole world is pink and orange.
And all of that is special, but all of that special is everywhere. All of those sparkling little facets of humanity, those exist here, but they exist wherever you are too.
A group sits around a table full of food, laughing and clapping. I stand towards the outskirts of the group with my friend, a woman whose first home is also far away. We ask each other about our respective countries in a language neither of us was born into, with long patient pauses while we try and remember new words.
The yellow light from the patio casts my host sister’s silhouette long and gray against the cement, and a song I am starting to know shakes the leaves on the apricot tree arcing over the house. She beats at the pavement quick, and swirls.
I watch while the music pulses faster, and shadows mix with the orange glow of the porch light. Her uncles clap and whistle. Her arms swing and feet pound, never missing a step. She grins with her whole face and catches my eye, and I grin back, full of that feeling you get when you are watching someone you care about happy. Pride, I think, and a secondhand smile.
One song melts into the next and she notices me standing and clapping and grabs me by the wrist and pulls me in, and I find it hard to imagine that anyone could ever feel like an outsider here for long—they’d never let you.
Even the very first day I was here, they made sure to tell me in English that they were a good family, and I didn’t need to worry. They promised me through google translate that even when they were talking in Armenian they weren’t saying bad things about me.
My host mom and sister spent hours trying to teach me to make Zhingyalov haats, letting me mess up as many times as I needed and try again. They’ve let me help cook and clean, and taught me their favorite songs, laughed with me while I tripped over my own feet trying to learn a dance. When my host mom found out my American mom’s birthday was coming up, she made sure I didn’t forget it. (Also, what’s up mom, my dedicated reader, love you!)
“Your mother misses you,” she reminded me. “Don’t forget to call her. And tell her I say happy birthday.”
“Yes kpatmem,” I said. I will tell.
I don’t think it can be overstated, how brave you have to be to be willing to take an American foreigner into your home for three months and welcome them so completely. An American foreigner who could really be anyone, from a culture different from your own, with essentially zero language skills. I cannot understate the respect I have for all host families, and the gratitude I have for mine.
I’m wrapping up pre-service training, swearing in as a volunteer tomorrow, and moving to a new place to start service for the next two years. My overwhelming takeaway from pre-service training is how incredibly lucky I am to be here, and how grateful I am for everything my host family has done to make me feel safe and a part of something.
My host sister grabs me by the wrist and pulls me out to dance. Her mother adjusts my arms and smiles and nods, and I don’t mind so much that I’m not a good dancer and probably look ridiculous. With careful instruction in three different languages, I forget to feel awkward and start spinning and grinning like the rest of them.
The Big Dipper stretches across the sky, and the lights from Yerevan glitter in the distance, and here, in the house at the far end of the village, there’s probably enough light for the entire rest of the world.
Miss my last post? Click here! It’s better than this one!
(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)
I was planning on seeing my bad day all the way through, while I kicked a stone down the road in a pair of shoes not meant for distances measured in kilometers.
These shoes are my only pair that have seen three continents. I got them in Norwich after I soaked my old favorites beyond repair in a London puddle. Now, my three continent shoes trek down a dusty road in the Caucuses, soles thin enough that my toes can curl around rocks.
I think the thing about “bad days” is what lies in the definition. One whole day can’t possibly be all bad. There are 24 hours in every day. We don’t really have 24 consecutive bad hours. We have one or two frustrating, or embarrassing hours, which go on the color the rest of the day.
Kicking that stone down the road as I walked, I was okay with letting those hours dictate the whole day. That was my plan right up until I pushed through the gate and looked out into the garden and caught my host sister’s eye.
She grinned and waved me over. I set down my backpack, following the maze between plants to where she stood.
“Maddy, ary!” She told me. Come.
I followed. I had never been in the garden before. She led me out past the apricot trees all lit up orange in the late light and out to a field where you can see three mountains at once.
“What town is that?” I tried to ask.
“Yerevan.” She answered, rattling off the Armenian names of the mountains too, having me repeat. Then we moved on to the trees, tsirani tsarr (apricot tree) and popok (walnut), and she taught me the names for plants that I can’t remember, chem hishoom. Armenian sounds prettier than English, with sweet “ah”s, long “oo”s and “zh”s, or the throaty “kh” and “gh”—sounds my own metallic American accent can’t quite replicate. In the garden though, my nasally accent didn’t matter so much. Bees hummed around us, and the sun sunk low, so we were in the shadow of the mountains, and I forgot all about the bad day I had decided to have.
I’ve grown to really like that long walk, the one that’s a little too long for the shoes from Norwich. I especially like it in the morning, because rounding the corner I can see Ararat. If it’s light out, and the clouds are right, the snow on the peak looks orange or pink.
I was distracted, watching the mountain when the dog jumped at me. I cursed in English, and shoved a knee at her.
“Voch,” I told the dog, walking a little faster.
I’ve always liked dogs. They don’t really scare me. Which, it turns out, is probably dumb.
She growled at me. Another dog joined. Fantastic, I thought. The first dog, the white one, bit at me, her teeth snagging the back of my shoe.
“No!” I turned around, snarling at her. You know, how you snarl at dogs? Like somehow if you convince the dog you are also a dog, it’ll leave you alone? This wasn’t my thought process. I didn’t have one. Hence, snarling at the dog.
Either way, the dog backed off.
The next time I passed the house with those two dogs was in the afternoon, and I was prepared. I picked up a large stone and held it in my hand.
The dog lounged in its yard, belly up, eyeing me and the rock.
“Don’t think I won’t,” I told the dog in English, both of us knowing full well that I probably wouldn’t. “I’m not afraid of you.”
A little afraid of her teeth for sure, and I could’ve sworn she was bigger.
The neighbor girl who lived in the house popped her head out and waved at me, eyes flickering between me, the rock in my hand and the dog.
“Vontes es?” she asked me, raising an eyebrow, probably wondering why the strange American girl with was afraid of a small dog napping in the sun.
I blushed. “Lav, uh, lav em!” I called back, quickly throwing the rock away.
Good, I’m great. Super normal. Not threating a thirty-pound dog with a rock.
She laughed at me, and walked with me ways. The dog hasn’t bothered me since, as if embarrassing me just that once was her end game, but I still grab a small rock when passing by early in the morning, just for the peace of mind.
“Garlic not spicy!” I argued in broken Armenian.
My host sister looked at me like I had come from the moon. “Shat ktzoo.It’s very spicy. Mi rope.” She stood up and crossed the kitchen.
My host sister brought out a tiny clove of garlic and waggled it in my face. “Sktor?Garlic?”
“Ha, same, nooina!” I replied in the Armenglish I’ve been using around the house. My host sister’s English is excellent, so I can get away with a few English phrases here and there.
It should also be noted that I’m no stranger to garlic. Toasted in tin foil over a fire, I’ve eaten a whole clove. I’ve even eaten raw garlic before. So I thought I knew what I was getting into.
My host sister grinned at me. “So you like it then?”
“I like,” I insisted.
“All right, go ahead then. Eat it.”
“Okay,” I said in English, popping the raw clove into my mouth. Chewing. Ready to declare che ktzoo, no spicy, when I quickly changed my mind.
“Oh no,” I said out loud. “Shat ktzoo.” My eyes started to water and my host sister burst out laughing.
“Here, quick, eat some cheese,” she shoved some cheese my way, both of us laughing. I deserved that, I typed into Google translate.
I guess I don’t believe in bad days. You can get chased by a dog in the morning, and laugh later when you’re caught afraid of a puppy. Choking down some raw garlic that I didn’t realize would be spicy is pretty funny from all angles. You can be frustrated and embarrassed, and still, later that day sit in the grass in the shadows and learn the names of the trees and mountains.
(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)
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A wave of ice cold water hit me and I sputtered for air. The back of my yellow kayak slid in and out of focus. I grabbed the stern of the boat and hauled myself over, staying low and trying to catch my breath.
“You good?” A friend called from nearby, but I couldn’t pinpoint their location. “We can head in. You don’t have to keep trying.”
I crawled back into the cockpit of my boat, putting on half of my spray skirt and then grabbing the bilge pump to pump out water.
I shivered, and wiped some snot off my face.
“I want to try again,” I said, not really believing it.
“If you’re sure.”
I didn’t end up rolling my kayak that day. All 5’ 3” of me couldn’t quite manage to turn a 16ft kayak right side up. I left cold, wet, bruised and impossibly sore, but ultimately happy I had given it another shot. That night, I watched from inside as lightning lit up whitecaps on the world’s largest lake.
For most people, kayaking is a vacation activity, in white sand beaches of Florida, or a leisure activity on your local lake. Kayaking is relaxing.That isn’t quite the experience Superior offers.
Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake by surface area. It has a year round average water temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, has produced waves as tall as 30 feet, and creates its own weather patterns. The word “lake” is almost entirely incorrect—Lake Superior is a sea.
The Lake Superior experience is completely different than inland lakes and tropical beaches—it’s better.
First paddled by the Anishinabek people, then serving as the highway of the fur trade, Lake Superior remains relatively unknown in the realm of tourism, despite its waterfalls, cliffs, hiking, and paddling.
I worked as a kayak guide in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for the summer, where people come to paddle the intricate halls of the mainland sea caves, visit the remote shores of the 22 islands, and have their own slice of adventure. Sometimes this involves glassy water and weaving through lacy archways—other times it involves teaching people how to surf kayaks, chasing off small island bears, or making up a quick way to fix a boat.
Farther North lie the towering cliffs and basalt of Minnesota’s North Shore, where water rushes into the big lake over red and purple rocks. The farther North you go, the farther you can walk without seeing another soul.
Michigan harbors the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where the cliffs are stained in reds and greens and purples. Every summer, the park gets thousands of backpackers, kayakers and tourists. I visited in Late September and the park was near empty, with water clarity around 30 feet.
Lake Superior’s landscapes are widely varied, and the land has a rich indigenous and maritime history. The shores are littered with shipwrecks, and the waters can test any seafarer.
For me, this has always been part of the draw. The remoteness, the towering cliffs, empty beaches, and most importantly, the ice cold water.
“Does it ever get old?” A participant on a kayak tour I was guiding asked me. She had sweet brown eyes and freckles.
I looked up at the cliff wall, Devil’s Island sandstone, red and orange layers, streaks of glimmering rock. The sea caves here are stunning, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the sweet purple flowers that hang on to that wall and manage to bloom where nothing else can grow.
“No,” I answered. “No, honestly every day I am surprised by how beautiful something here is. A few days ago it rained like crazy, and we were able to paddle under some waterfalls. That doesn’t happen very often.”
She nodded, satisfied.
The beauty of Lake Superior doesn’t lie inherently in cliffs and cold water. The Lake is both a lake and a sea. The Lake has both tropical-like beaches, and ice cold water. Superior can be calm and inviting one day, and sink ships the next. The Lake can feel completely like my home, and nearly drown me in the same day. The beauty of Lake Superior lies in unpredictability and contradiction, and in being one of the last truly wild spaces.
I wrote this piece a while ago, but didn’t like it. I threw it in a folder labeled “trash” on my computer and forgot about it. I found it recently, and it turns out I don’t hate it as much as I thought I did, so here it is.
I wasn’t going to do a new year’s post this year, mostly because I’m very lazy, but also because I tend to find it a little cliché. It turns out I don’t have anything against being cliché, so here is my new year’s post anyhow!
I post (both here and on Instagram) about a lot of the really cool things I have had the opportunity to do. Inevitably, it paints a picture that I am having fun and in pretty places all the time. So here is a quick list at some of the more embarrassing and downright dumb things I pulled in 2018, accompanied by some of my favorite photos from the year.
I got caught in literal Quicksand
I’ve got a long list of things that I worry about hiking alone—you know, bears, twisting an ankle, snakes, being thrown into the back of some dude’s van and ending up a cold case. The usual. I thought quicksand was a thing of complete fiction, stuck only in Indiana Jones and John Mulaney bits.
Turns out, no. There’s this pretty little spot where Otter Creek runs into Lake Michigan, and if the wind is blowing just right, and you’re too busy eating a sandwich while walking to pay attention, you too might stumble into some quicksand and sink up past your knees, frantically waving your sandwich over your head, because if you survive this you’ll still be hungry, and then inch worm out, now cold and damp. My sandwich made it out unscathed, and I had a damp picnic lunch wondering if anyone would ever believe I got caught in quicksand.
Apostle Islands Archway, WI
(Two of my favorite kayaking photos, August 2018, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore)
Ran for another flight
Last year my sisters and I went careening through the Salt Lake City airport, this time it was Atlanta, and I ended up with Chaco blisters. Again, we made the flight, but not gracefully.
Got asked if we were “experienced snowshoers” and decided sure, why not
How much experience is required for one to be an experienced snowshoe-r? Isn’t it just hiking, but colder? We’ve been snoeshoewing like, in our lifetimes, so that feels experienced, right?
I got Mono and it was lame
I’m not sure what I did to have the world decide that I deserved to spend my last semester of college sick in bed, but it was lame. Shout out my mother, for putting up with me.
I hiked through a hailstorm
I thought it would be fun to go for a hike on my day off. Did not check the radar. Cue quarter sized hail and standing too close to a river/ flash flood zone. Living large my friends.
I capsized a kayak in flat calm water by accident
Listen, everybody capsizes their kayaks, especially starting out, or just having fun. On a beautiful day this July, as a guideon a kayak trip, I flipped and took a swim in the drink. I’m not really sure howper se, but it was near the wreck of the Fedora, and while I know nobody died on that shipwreck, I’m still going to say it was a ghost. I would like to emphasize that it was flat calm, and I was in a pretty stable boat. I have no idea why I flipped.
I got to spend the rest of the trip pink faced and damp. Which, coincidently, is sort of the natural state of being for anyone who kayaks.
I puked in a pit toilet on Sand Island
And like, hung out there for a little while on the floor. A very dignified place to be.
The first thing I want to tell you about Lake Superior is that she is not a lake; Superior is a sea. She creates her own weather patterns and kicks up squalls out of nowhere. On the Bayfield Peninsula, surrounded by her on three sides, it feels a little like she completely engulfs us.
My first glimpse of her was near Whitefish Point in Michigan in the Winter. The bay was completely frozen. The first time I swam in Superior was in August, a year or two ago, in the coves of the Pictured Rocks. The water was cold and ridiculously clear. I had hiked out with my brother. We had a strange, beautiful beach completely to ourselves. That’s one way Superior is apart from other lakes and rivers—she is big enough, and cold enough, and far enough north that she can make you feel like you’re the only person left in the whole of the world.
I’ve spent three and a half months this year up on her South Shore and I will be very sorry to leave. I believe we can learn a lot from nature. I believe that the experiences we have are more important than the things we memorize in a classroom.
I also believe I am incredibly lucky to have lived in a world where I can see six bald eagles in any one day, where the cliffs are red and the water is green and stories of the First Peoples not only survive but are told and woven into the culture of the area.
One of my first weeks here I laid back on the dock of Oak Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and let splinters of wood poke into my back, let my hair hang off the dock and reach toward the water. The dock was the only real refuge from the mosquitos, so about a dozen coworkers-turning-friends and myself gathered on it. The sun sank lower in the horizon and warmed the skin on my face with that distinct sweet orange glow. A breeze tugged lightly on the sun-bleached ends of my hair. I thought about life, and my time in college, and all of the good things that had happened and all of the bad, and how I wouldn’t erase any of it and risk this moment.
Someone asked me how I could stand to be so far North, so far away from the city, any city. Am I not bored?
On a calm, sunny day, it’s easy to forget that Superior is dangerous. Spend enough time with her and you’ll get only just a concept of how changeable she is.
On June 30th, I woke up bleary-eyed and stumbled into work. I joked around with some coworkers in the boathouse, and then fitted the participants who would be joining on us on a lovely guided kayak tour with wetsuits.
The wind had already changed direction several times.
At Meyers Beach, the launch point for the mainland sea caves, you can sometimes see 30 miles across Superior to Minnesota’s North Shore. That day Minnesota was obscured completely by a dark cloud, contoured at the top and moving rapidly North.
The water was the stillest thing I had ever seen—gray and not even a ripple. A fog bank rolled towards us. Five miles offshore, the bank swallowed Eagle Island.
“We’re going to wait to launch,” the lead guide told me quietly. The fog bank continued to roll toward us, and now it looked like the darker storm cloud was headed toward us too.
A sheet of 25 knot wind hit us like a slap in the face. The whole lake shivered. We had to shout to be heard. In the time it took us to carry one boat up the 47 stairs at Meyers Beach, the Lake had picked up from glass to 2-4 foot waves. Just to reiterate here—the Lake in less than 10 minutes went from still to potentially dangerous.
Lake Superior is a siren; she lulls you in with her song of sea caves, crystal water and untouched cliff line, and then she reminds you who you are. You are a human, and you are infinitely small on a sea that you don’t understand and that is not yours.
So no, I wouldn’t say I am “bored”.
It’s funny though, because I expected Lake Superior in all her storied fury to make me feel weak, but it didn’t work out that way at all. Insignificant, sure, but almost never did I feel weak.
Time on Lake Superior has made me feel strong and smart and more capable, not less. I respect the Lake and my size in comparison, but being on the Lake, feeling the waves and the water push, and pull, and stretch far below you, feeling my boat respond to the turn of my hips and covering distances by the power of my own body—that has made me feel very strong. We live in a world that judges us each by a different set of standards, where some people get head starts and have an easier time than others. That dissolves on the Lake. On the Lake the test is the same for each person, and you either sink or swim.
In late July, voices buzzed around me, but I wasn’t really listening or trying to. I was watching the lighthouse on the southern tip of Madeline Island blink patient and steady against the dark. The water was warm for Superior. I dove in deep and the world went silent, the shouts and laughter of friends quieted by the Lake. The Milky Way reached across the sky. Night air ran down my back in a shiver. The people around me had been drinking, but I was intensely happy to be sober, because I felt everything so sharply and completely.
I am sure that no one has ever left Superior’s waters not feeling clean and whole.
Laziest paddler ever
The primary place we lead kayak tours is the Mainland Sea Caves. Sometimes it feels a little hollow—we take people to what was once Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) land so that they can take a selfie and check it off their bucket list. Other times it doesn’t feel so hollow. Other times it feels like you are facilitating a genuine connection to nature and respect for the Lake, as well as it’s people and stories.
The first cave is called “the crack”. I have heard that it is the remains of an ancient fault line. You can paddle on a thin vein of Superior deep into the Earth, where turquoise water meets layered red cliffs, laced with streaks of purple and gold. You can ease far back in to where the air smells like Earth and has it’s chill. Tendrils of fog linger at the water’s surface. If you paddle far enough back it feels like the rock might not give you up. I think this one is my favorite cave.
Long Islands on Madeline Island (oh ya know, the island named after me)
My lovely co-guide getting’ stoked about our stay on Swamp Island, complete with 900 mosquitos and some biting flies WHOOO NEATURE
I was told that we’re all looking for some specific feeling; something that makes us really feel alive and inspired, but we all find this feeling in different ways. A few people snickered during this telling, but I was on the edge of my seat. It makes some sort of simple sense. Different things and different paths can bring us to the same feelings. It’s much easier to understand other people’s choices and differences when you understand the feeling, even if you don’t recognize the path.
Sometimes, when the wind is just right, the lake turns a blue green and churns, speckled with whitecaps. She’ll look like a sea monster might come up, or like a Viking ship might have sailed her. Sea spray, bright green, and the Lake feels alive.
In late July I received the best compliment of my life.
I had been talking to a woman about my various plans for life now that I was out of school and she grinned at me.
“You’re a bit of a wild thing aren’t you?’
I laughed. “I’m not sure anyone has called me that before.”
Still, I hoped I was.
The best place to feel the full power of the Lake might be that thin trail above the Sea Caves. People travel miles to see the caves but they should really travel to hear them. There’s a deep heaving, the sound of water slamming deep into the caves, regular and cathartic. Mist on your skin, the sea is a beautiful green gray, all the leaves rain brightened. The wind howls around you. The forest dances, the sea beats, powerful and regular below you.
I want to shout into it, and celebrate the raw, real beauty of a storm on the sea, and me, just a speck on the cliff side.
Paddling itself is both intensely physical and intimate.
You are in a boat that may as well be a bit of driftwood in the sea. You move forward by the creak of your own arms and the turn of your own hips. You feel the water stretching below you and feel every turn and twist of the current. The water can be so cold that it hurts. Light mist, low clouds. The Lake beats steady on the beach; you move steady forward. In at the toe, twist, out at the hip. Repeat. Deeply physical. The lake will rock you to sleep long after you have left.
Every year, people die in this Lake that I love. That is a fact. This year, three small kids and their father died in an ill-fated crossing, probably due to hypothermia. So how do we reconcile loving this lake with the damage that it can do? It’s easy to want to blame people for the mistakes that they made and the safety gear that they didn’t have, but experience informs decision making. So can you really blame people for not having the experience to make a safe decision? It hardly seems like loosing your family is a fair price to pay for ignorance. But I suppose no one ever said life, or the Lake was fair.
It’s a popular opinion that nature is indifferent, and maybe it is, maybe that’s true. After hearing stories about people swept off piers and shipwrecks, who am I to say any different?
But when someone who had been guiding for years on Lake Superior told me stories of close calls, he paused to laugh and shake his head.
“The sea goddess must be a good one,” he said. “You can mess up a lot of little things and still get by, or one big thing, and still make it work. You have to really mess it all up, that’s when you’re in big trouble.”
So I suppose it’s possible that the Lake isn’t indifferent at all. I suppose it’s quite possible that she feels things deeply—approximately 1,333 feet deeply.
So after four years of hard (eh) work on a Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience, additional major in Professional Writing, I am graduating! As I have been M.I.A. from this blog, and somehow actually have a few readers to explain myself to, here is a nice wrap up post summarizing the finer points of my undergraduate education and the parts of my life that usually don’t make an appearance on this primarily hiking/travel-oriented blog. Namely, what I “learned” as an undergraduate student.
My first instinct is to say that I’ve learned literally nothing in my four years at a university. I don’t know jack about chemical reactions, and I still can’t write, and I’ve spent four years here and completely achieved my goal of not learning a single thing. In fact, my knee jerk reaction is tongue-in-cheek to say that I am actually much less intelligent than I was four years ago.
But I realized that’s not at all true. I did learn a lot in the classroom. I know about brains, and I actually can write a little bit, and in four semesters of Latin, despite my best efforts to stay completely ignorant to the language, I did pick up a phrase or two.
Still, the most important lessons I learned in my four years working on my Bachelor’s Degree I did not learn in the classroom.
The best lessons I learned in the real life part of college, the part where you slowly start to become an adult. Or rather, you realize “adult” is just an arbitrary word.
The best lessons I learned over the last four years came hard and slow, in lows and highs. They did not involve scantrons, or textbooks, and they weren’t always crystal clear, and honestly still aren’t.
My freshman year I volunteered in a nursing home, writing the stories of people with alzheimer’s and dementia so that they could read their own memories even if they couldn’t remember. That taught me what loneliness looked like, and the importance of small gestures. Loneliness is not knowing your family, your friends, your own stories, and only really knowing you’re dying. That’s what loneliness looks like.
Shortly after, I went to work in the Emergency Room. I learned a lot of lessons in my three months there, but the most important thing I learned is death is indiscriminate. It applies to older people with heart conditions who have taken bad falls, yes, but also the six year old you made a rubber glove balloon for the hour before. Indiscriminate. Almost simultaneously to this lesson I realized that the medical field wasn’t one I wanted to work in.
Working several jobs while taking classes taught me about balance, and working as a writing tutor for freshman I learned that a lot of times writing isn’t really the thing first year students need the most help with.
I learned that sometimes you need to skip class to help people, and sometimes you lie without a second thought to protect them.
On a study abroad, I learned how to work the train system in the UK and that sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. I also learned that the same tense situations that lead to bad blood for some people can make best friends of others. We also learned unequivocally that in a heist of 11 girls, I am one of the two who breaks off to shit talk the others.
I learned that you can absolutely change who you are and that you aren’t the words anyone choses to describe you— you pick your own words.
I learned that you can do a bad thing but not be a bad person.
I got some of the best advice I’ve ever received—
“you deserve to be loved the way you want to be loved.”
I learned that not only is being kind more important than being pretty, but being kind is more important than being smart or right.
I learned to shake things off, and how to really, actually take criticism.
I learned how to take a fall, and failure, and how to turn the other cheek.
I learned that better or worse are usually an opinion; there is only different.
I learned that there are no good people or bad people, and that we are all only a sum of our actions. I learned how to apologize and be really wrong.
I learned that other people will surprise you, and never to underrate or underestimate the importance of good friends.
I learned the power of images, and words, and actions.
I learned how to write; I learned I am still learning.
I learned I know nothing at all.
And all of this is a lot more important than conjugating latin verbs and memorizing chemicals.
I’ll leave you with this photo, and a promise to never take myself too seriously: