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Monthly Archives: February 2020

[Reposting this oldie for reasons that will become obvious.]

My last two years of high school, I lived in Sweet Home, Oregon, a small logging and mill town.  One highlight of my junior year was taking a creative writing class from William Johnson – a teacher so old he’d taught my dad decades earlier.  He was completely bald on top with tufts of white hair that stood out above his ears.  He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and button-down shirts and slacks when he taught.

Mr. Johnson was a great fan of my writing, and the warmth of his support continued after I graduated.  We corresponded erratically during my undergraduate years and for awhile afterwards, too.  Then one weekend in February, I was scheduled to meet my parents in Sweet Home to visit my grandmother.  I thought it would be a good chance to see Mr. Johnson, too.

I phoned to see if he and I could meet for an hour or so while I was in town.  “Sarah and I are having some people for lunch on Saturday.  You should come for lunch, too.”  He wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and that Saturday I left my grandmother’s home in plenty of time to drive to Foster, the adjacent town where he lived.

To get to Foster, one drives down the Santiam Highway and crosses a bridge by the reservoir.  What Mr. Johnson had neglected to tell me was that this Saturday, the reservoir hosted a four-wheel-drive mud race.  This is pretty much what it sounds like.  On the edge of the reservoir, contestants brought their four-wheel-drive vehicles and raced each other through a muddy course along its edge.

Image result for four wheel drive mud racing

It was an alarmingly popular event, and when nearly an hour passed and I’d crept only a few yards toward the bridge to cross the reservoir, I turned back.  Nearly in tears, I found a pay phone and told Mr. Johnson I couldn’t make it.  He sounded impatient with me.  “Just go around the other way,” he chided.

When I finally wound my parents’ car up the twisty roads overlooking the reservoir, I found myself on a little knoll at a charming, rough-hewn cabin.  Mr. Johnson came out to greet me and gave me a big hug – the first in our history together.  “Come meet the rest,” he said, and flung his arm wide toward the front door.  Inside, his wife Sarah (“Second cousin to Katherine Anne Porter, you know”) sat at a round dining table with three other couples in their 50’s and 60’s.

Mr. Johnson said, “Katrina, I’d like you to meet Jim Mason; he’s a lover. And his wife Karen, she’s a lover, too.”  He went around the table this way, introducing everyone as a lover.  I felt paralyzed and off-balance.  Clearly I’d stumbled into some swinging, orgiastic small-town scene with my former grandfatherly English teacher at the center.

Was there some way I could beat a hasty retreat?  It seemed impossible since I’d exercised such tenacity to get there in the first place.  I clenched my jaw, already in a cold sweat and bracing for an excruciatingly uncomfortable lunch.

Then I realized it was Valentine’s Day.

The potato leek soup was delicious.

A piece of advice: should you embark on a two-day backpacking trip in your late 20’s with your then-boyfriend, and out of a misguided desire to be efficient, he convinces you to take only trail mix to eat – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks: trail mix – make sure to bring extra water. Failing this, expect to not poop for the entire trip. Also, as a result of this experience, you may develop an aversion to trail mix.

***

The majority of the family backpacking trips of my youth occurred in New England. My father’s deep love of leaving town and getting into the forest initiated these excursions, but I believe all of us came to love the way that trees and natural waterways soothed us to our depths. Making such a journey with four small children was a tall order. In exchange for the extra effort involved to take such trips – my mom was already working her ass off at home – my parents negotiated that my dad would be in charge of planning, packing, and cooking. And so summer after summer, between Memorial and Labor Days, we set forth – to the Catskills, to the White Mountains, to the Adirondacks – my dad’s pack piled higher than the top of his head and my mom’s not much shorter. 

As one of the children, I only had the vaguest notion of where we were going, or where we were once we got there. That was up to the adults. My job was to endure a long car ride and be lured up the trail by artfully meted-out cheese and chocolate. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in where we were; it’s that directions would have been meaningless to me. I barely knew the towns adjacent to my hometown, let alone the direction to take to get to them. Up to a certain age, this is the norm. To children, the world is vast, and unknowable in that vastness. Directions became more relevant once I learned to drive. So, I looked out car windows, then at countless pine-tree-lined trails, and at the end of each day, I’d feast on one of my dad’s hot dinners, miraculously assembled from camping food.

You could say I was primed to associate backpacking with certain things being expected of me – packing what I needed, carrying my pack, putting one foot in front of the other – and not certain other things – planning the trip, looking at maps, thinking deeply about meals. So when Mark proposed that on our trip to Oregon we do some backpacking, I was prepared to show up in certain ways and not in others. As fate would have it, he saw no reason to involve me in aspects of the planning, and neither did I.

Which is why, in a cheaper-by-the-dozen-like efficiency move, we ended up with the aforementioned excess of trail mix and dearth of anything else.

Lest I come across as a complete pushover, I want to be clear that I did express my desire for more varied food. I knew what it was like to walk all day, pitch a tent while tired and hungry, and be rewarded with a warm, tasty dinner. I also knew what it was like to emerge from a toasty warm sleeping bag into a chill morning and be able to warm up with a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of hot cocoa.

Hearing my request, Mark thought a moment, then said, “Well, but then, we’d have to bring a camp stove. And extra water. And plan meals, and shop for them. Let’s just bring trail mix.”

I wasn’t surprised. This was the guy whose favorite meal to make for himself was Kraft mac-and-cheese with added canned tuna and frozen peas and corn. He eschewed the milk and butter that the box generally recommends you add. Let that sink in. Pasta, corn, peas, tuna, all in a dusting of dehydrated cheese powder. This was not a man who was seduced by food except as fuel for the furnace.

So I did say what I wanted. I understood that the best way to get my needs met was to say what they were and ask that they be considered. What I was unprepared for was what to do if the other person wasn’t swayed by hearing my needs. If I made my gambit and it was rebuffed – well, those were the only cards I had to play. Hence, trail mix.

In the developmental model of couples therapy (of which I am a student), the above, so-called strategy I used arises from a state known as symbiosis. Symbiosis describes a couple that is so uncomfortable with conflict that one or both people frequently squash their own needs in order to keep the peace. So if, for example, you’d like food that’s quite different from what your boyfriend wants, in the symbiotic phase you have a limited tolerance for being of two minds about food and will eventually abandon your culinary desires in favor of getting back on the same page. Except this sort of “being on the same page” is a fiction. Mark and I weren’t on the same page; my acquiescing simply buried the fact that we were on different pages.

All couples go through the symbiotic phase at the start, that heady, falling-in-love stage where we seem perfect for each other. Many of us have trouble shifting out of this phase even when we start to feel the ways we differ from each other. This difficulty might stem from watching parents who handled their conflicts this way. For women, female socialization, which often emphasizes accommodation and not rocking the boat, can also contribute to this difficulty. Wherever it originates, one thing always follows on its heels: resentment. 

At the beginning of the hike – before the two days’ worth of trail mix had built up, so to speak – I didn’t yet feel especially resentful. We took the obligatory photos at the trailhead looking clean and energetic, and then we set out. We were hiking to the base of Mt. Jefferson, a hike I’d done with my family a couple times as an older teenager. Both times we’d gone with other families whose children were much younger, and I remembered the hike as one that basically took all day. I hadn’t factored in the fact that two 20-somethings could hike much faster than families comprised several small children. The hike in took almost half the time we’d allowed for.

We tromped around the soggy meadows at the base of the mountain, looking for a place to pitch our tent – which is when the mosquitoes first made their appearance. We stopped walking long enough to scope out a potential tent site, and apparently the word went out among the biting insects. Where previously we’d only seen the occasional mosquito on the trail, suddenly we were discovered, two warm-blooded creatures standing still long enough to be sucked on. The piercing blue sky was quickly obscured by the curtain of mosquitoes that came to feast on us.

“Let’s get the tent up and get inside,” Mark said. We were fairly proficient and got the tent up quickly so we could scramble inside. For a time, we hunted the mosquitoes who’d made it inside with us. Then we looked at each other. It was 5 pm. We’d have full sun for at least two more hours, and partial sun for two more.  We’d brought no books. There was nothing to do, no food to prepare.

We passed the bag of trail mix back and forth and stared at the slowly diminishing day while the mosquitoes whined and plastered themselves against the outside of the tent.

We spent a miserable night, mostly not sleeping. Outwardly, we were in this together. Inwardly, I blamed Mark: for the trail mix, for the mosquitoes, for the slowly seeping damp beneath our tent, for my bad night’s sleep, for the mosquito bites on my ass from having to pee in the middle of the night.

The sky brightened early. Following a terse exchange, we decided to eat “breakfast” once we were hiking. We packed up our damp tent and sleeping bags, hoisted our packs, and set off toward the ridge to the north. It was supposed to hook up with a trail that offered an alternate route back to the car. We could see the ridge from far off, and we wended our way toward it.

The view from the ridge was spectacular. Standing in one spot I could see Mt. Hood to the north; a 180-degree turn revealed one of the Three Sisters to the south. Their snowy peaks sparkled in the early sunshine. Up out of the mosquito-breeding bogs and above the tree line I thought maybe the effort had been worth it after all.

Mark had, in fact, brought a map, so when we hit the first unexpected fork in the trail, I looked over his shoulder to offer my opinion about which direction we should take. But nature refuses to stand still. It is always shifting and overlapping. Trails become obscured, or somehow don’t look the way you expect, given the map. Were we where we were supposed to be? Was this the trail that eventually curved back to where our car was, or was it the one that would spit us out miles from the right trailhead? I weighed in, no better informed than my partner.

“If we’re on the right trail,” I said, “it looks like we should come to a gentle right and then a sharp left soon.” Did we encounter such a configuration? It was hard to say. That right and then left that we took looked different to me than on the map, but maybe that’s how it appeared to the mapmaker. The emotional high I’d felt on the ridge was a distant memory. In its place, demoralization settled, aided by insufficient sleep and too much trail mix. I had no idea if we were on the right trail, and I didn’t know how to get more sure. In time, we’d reach a road and only then would we know for certain. It was possible that what we’d know at that point was that we’d taken the wrong trail.

We remained slightly above the tree line for a time, descending gently until the trail dropped precipitously. In just a few strides, we were down in the forest, surrounded by 150-foot Doug firs. No need to wonder any longer if we were on the right trail because this was the trail we were on. It was ours now, wherever it might lead. 

Time is relative, as we know. Our perception of time is quite vulnerable to believing ourselves to be lost, for example. Being lost, multiplied by countless steps, equals time moving at a snail’s pace; those countless steps took us further and further from an easy view of the sky. Though beyond the trees it was a clear, sunny day, in the forest it might as well have been dusk. Branches and boughs, hungry for light, filled every conceivable gap.

I can’t believe this, I thought. How hard is it to know where you’re going? It’s not rocket science, planning a backpacking trip. My dad did it all the time. My back hurt, my legs hurt. A bubble of panic lodged behind my sternum. I imagined myself fragmenting into a screaming, hysterical mess. I would have been one of those pioneer women who completely lost her shit crossing the country in a covered wagon. These woods went on and on and on. And back then, they went on and on a thousand times over. She would have wondered if the forest would ever yield to some other terrain. Would she ever see the sky again? In all directions, there was nothing but dense, towering Douglas firs, broken only by the trail.

Instead of decompensating, I had to put one foot in front of the other without cheese or chocolate to motivate me. I had to find my motivation within the fact that the forest would be a supremely inconvenient place to have a nervous breakdown. Curses on Mark’s head accompanied every step for a time. Then at some point my aching knees and oozing heels – did I mention the blisters? – demanded all of my attention and I dropped the silent litany of Mark’s offenses.

Eventually, the forest spat us out a mere 20 feet from our car. The familiar normalcy of it almost made me weep. We drove the three hours back to our digs in complete silence.

***

We’re used to thinking of the word symbiosis as relating to infant development. In the earliest days and weeks of infancy, the infant is not only completely dependent upon its caregiver but in fact, as a result of this close bond, experiences the caregiver as an extension of themselves rather than as a separate being. Only as their brains and bodies develop do they come to understand that, in addition to there being a “me,” there’s also a “you.” They don’t have to think about emerging from symbiosis into the next stage; it’s a natural process that simply happens as the brain and body continue to grow.

Unlike childhood, in order to grow out of symbiosis in our adult relationships, we can’t rely on aging to bring automatic growth and development. We have to deliberately reach for that growth. We can have all the trappings of adulthood – a job, a long-term relationship, maybe a house, or a retirement plan – and still be stuck in symbiosis. To remain stuck there is not only painful but stagnating. 

To remain stuck also robs us of enjoying the benefits of the next stage of development: differentiation. How might a little differentiation have transformed this backpacking trip? Mark and I would have valued each of our positions equally. If neither of us could genuinely be won over to the other’s side, I might eventually have said, “I know that having a variety of hot food will enhance my experience of this trip so I’ll pack the camp stove and the extra water and the food I’ve shopped for in my backpack.” I would have realized that, since this was my desire, it was reasonable for me to decide how to fulfill that desire. I wouldn’t have thought it was Mark’s job to make my agenda happen when his differed. 

With a little differentiation, we also would have understood the importance of both of us being responsible for knowing where we were going and how to get there. Of course, the “maps” that might teach us how to get where we’re going in our relationships are even more mysterious than backpacking maps can be. Maybe that’s why I do the work I do, trying to become more familiar with the terrain, looking for the landmarks that will keep us on the right trail and prevent us from getting lost. Mark and I did get lost; thus, ex-boyfriend. But maybe getting lost isn’t always a bad thing. Maybe it’s what helps us to get better at reading maps so that the next time – perhaps – we don’t get quite as lost.

 

“Don’t believe everything you think.”

This is one of my favorite bumper stickers, in part because it encapsulates what I’ve come to understand about our minds. Namely, that they are often untrustworthy. To wit, memory can change under the influence of others; we can believe we’re being objective when in fact we’re behaving from a place of beliefs and opinions; and if there are things we think, or behavior we engage in, that our brain doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of us, it will conveniently “forget” those thoughts and behaviors in order to maintain its preferred self-perception.

For nearly a hundred years, schools of psychology have explored the idea that much of our motivations, beliefs, and fears lie outside our conscious mind. In fact, neuroscience has recently confirmed that most of us operate from a place of 95% unconsciousness. Or, as one of my favorite psychologists, Polly Young-Eisendrath, puts it, “A little island of consciousness tries to justify what we do after we’ve done it.”

For example, if I like to think of myself as a nice person, but then I cut someone off in traffic, my mind will find all sorts of explanations for why I did that, but none of those explanations are likely to include the idea that sometimes I’m not nice. Our brain likes to believe what it believes, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

At the dinner table the other day, my kids and husband were talking about the challenges of speaking directly to someone you’re in conflict with. Unbidden, a memory surfaced. One I haven’t thought about in 30 years.

***

Early on in my relationship with Mark, his grandmother died. His mom asked Mark and his two siblings to come help her and their grandfather to pack up the house in preparation for selling it. Mark and I lived in Texas at the time, so in the spring of 1989, we made the 33-hour drive to Albany, Oregon to help out. I’d only met Mark’s family a couple times; I still felt insecure around them and eager to please. I looked forward to helping clean and sort and pack boxes – things I was quite good at, and things that would enable me to lean on a shared activity while being around people I didn’t know very well.

Mark’s grandfather lived on a few, thickly-forested acres in north Albany in an old farmhouse. It was a beautiful patch of land, if a bit dark, even at high noon. A stack of broken-down packing boxes leaned against the side of the front porch when we pulled up. Inside were Mark’s grandfather, mother, older sister, Jennifer, and younger brother, Floyd. No actual packing had started. People walked around aimlessly, seeming uncertain where to start. I found their disorganization and lack of efficiency wearing.

“Where should we begin?” Jennifer asked, standing in the middle of the living room and looking about. She grabbed a stack of photo albums. “What about these?” She opened one. “Oh, wow. Mark, remember this?” She sat on the couch and patted the cushion next to her.

Mark sat and leaned toward the open pages and laughed at what he saw. “We’ve got to get Floyd in on this! Hey, Floyd!” He hollered for their brother. Floyd appeared in the doorway. “You’ve got to check this out, man.” Floyd sat on Jennifer’s other side and peered at the book. At intervals, Jennifer slowly turned a page and it would start again: “Do you remember that? Can you believe we were ever so little?”

I stood near them for 10, 20, 30 minutes as they strolled – inched – down memory lane with each other. Eventually their mother called from another room, “Is there any more packing tape?” Her three offspring lifted their heads, initially disoriented to be torn from their reminiscences.

Jennifer said, “I ran out of it, too, Mom.”

“I’ll go get more!” I volunteered. “Maybe the corner store has some?” Turning onto their grandfather’s road from Highway 20, there’d been a small convenience store west of the intersection.

Mark frowned. “Do you think they’ll have any?” he asked me.

“If not I’ll find somewhere else.”

“Maybe the office store across the river?” Jennifer suggested.

I grabbed my purse. “Sure. If the convenience store doesn’t have it.”

Mark began to look more energized with the sort of energy that might motivate him to accompany me, or might decide that my errand wasn’t actually a good idea after all. “‘Bye!” I said, and was out the door and into my car before anyone could think to stop me.

I was seething. I drove too fast down the country lane muttering, “Rude. Thoughtless. Uncaring. Exclusive.”

As I approached where the road intersected Highway 20, the tree cover gave way to a sparkling, blue-sky day. The corner store was to my right. Straight ahead was a green highway sign. Above an arrow pointing west it read: “Corvallis 10 miles.”  That’s what I needed to do: I needed to go to Corvallis. Screw packing tape; screw Mark; screw his rude family.

I turned the car toward Corvallis in a burst of gravel, feeling at once free and triumphant. Ha! They’d tried to make me feel small and unwelcome. Well, I’d show them, I’d step right out of the cone of shame they’d constructed for me and be my own club of one.

On a sunny, late spring day, the drive between Albany and Corvallis is one of the finest Oregon has to offer. The highway is lined on the river side with incense cedar and grand fir trees. To the right, farms and fields show the tender green of early growth and the occasional Oregon white oak to complete the pastoral scene. My spirits lifted to the point of giddiness. Somewhere along the way, I decided I couldn’t possibly go to Corvallis without getting lunch at Nearly Normal’s. Even better! I’d escaped the crushing experience of being ignored and now, as if that weren’t enough, I was going to get to eat my favorite barbequed tempeh burger. Life was good.

No one had a cell phone in 1989. I briefly considered finding a pay phone before remembering that I didn’t know Mark’s grandfather’s phone number or last name. So, off the hook.

As expected, my barbequed tempeh burger was delicious. As I finished it and wiped my greasy fingers, I felt perhaps I’d been gone long enough. I paid my bill and walked to the packaging and mail store down the block for packing tape.

Mark was on the porch sorting the flattened boxes when I drove up. He straightened and waited for me to turn off the engine and get out of the car. After driving in the sunshine, the yard felt cold and oppressive.

“Hi!” I said cheerfully. I held up the packing tape. “Got it!”

His expression was quizzical, and something else. Maybe annoyed. “Where were you?”

I shrugged. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to find packing tape.”

***

My family shrieked over this story. “Mom,” my daughter said. “Passive-aggressive much?”

“You think that was passive-aggressive?” I asked innocently. Telling the story, I felt effervescent, free. How had it slept in my Unconscious all this time, only to emerge whole at this precise moment?

Polly Young-Eisendrath might suggest that at the time this incident was happening, the story I told myself about it was one I liked: I’d been snubbed and took back my power. But not long after it happened, some part of my psyche knew the narrative was more complicated and less flattering than I’d first devised. But I wasn’t quite ready for this truer story, which featured me as not a hero, but as a scalawag. And so my mind did what minds do so well. It swept that story under the rug of my Unconscious.

Why did it emerge when it did? Things often skulk around in our Unconscious because our mind can’t tolerate anything that contradicts our self-perception. It can’t tolerate it because we experience this contradiction as shame: “It’s bad to be passive-aggressive. So if I’m featured in a story where I’m being passive-aggressive, I myself am, therefore, bad.” Most of us do anything we can to avoid feeling shame.

But something wonderful has happened with age. That story popped into my mind recently not just because it was relevant to our dinnertime conversation, but also because I can now accept that sometimes I’m passive-aggressive. And I can acknowledge the truth of this inside of a compassionate and full view of everything that I am. This updated, richer notion of what it means to be a human being enables me, instead of shying away from my flaws, to say instead, “Of course I’m passive-aggressive sometimes, I’m a human being. I’ll do my best to improve in this area, but there’s no need for me to rake myself over the coals for being imperfect; that just goes with the territory.”