Freedom and Failure

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(At the north end of Lake Chelan, Stehekin, WA)

We can leave. We can begin again, and again, and again, we can fall in love with new gorgeous places, we can try a million different things. We can kick out the cobwebs in our dark dusty selves that accrue after a bad day, a week, a month, a year. It’s never too late. It’s never so impossible.

It is an amazing thing, to realize you are incredibly free. I think many of us theoretically know this is true, but to actually experience it, in ways big and small—that’s a different thing altogether.

IMG_5566 Last year I was in a dark and weird place. I was spinning my wheels, feeling friendless and cursed and sad. I was back in my home state going to a new school, newly in debt, and always late for the bus. I wrecked my car, popped my new phone in the washer (and dryer!) and most of the time I missed mountains so bad I could barely breathe.

You simply can’t will yourself to love strip mall wastelands, if you don’t.

You can’t will yourself to succeed, or to like things that you hate, or to feel fine when you really aren’t.

I had always known that I could start over, but I’d also never felt so defeated. In my mind I felt very trapped. I could list a dozen reasons why I was out of good options. But I made a lot of calls, sent out a lot of resumes, and waited. And at last, after I’d given up hope of finding somewhere beautiful to escape this summer, I heard back from someone in the North Cascades.

IMG_0947We are truly, in most cases, free beings: in ways simple and profound. We can usually make all kinds of decisions about where to live, what to do, whom to love, how to be. Inevitably we will be handed all kinds of situations that we did not choose for ourselves. But even there we have some power to decide— whether to give ourselves ulcers by fretting about things outside of our control, or to focus on the changes we have to power to make.

In the North Cascades I reveled in my freedom. No longer did I have to spend my day in sterile university buildings, with plastic couches and fluorescent lights. Glorious snow capped mountains surrounded me. Butterflies swarmed down by the boat landing, tufts of cottonwood fluff drifted through the air, never seeming to land. Some mornings before I started my housekeeping shift I’d bike down past the lake to the bakery, and devour on a cinnamon bun the size of my face. Frogs, bear and rattlesnakes populated the woods around my cabin home, where I lived with a wonderful human named Kevin.

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But reality is a relentless bastard and will chase you even to the farthest, most remote reaches of the world. Even living in one of the most remote communities of the lower 48 states, accessible only by a 20 mile trail or 50 miles boat ride up Lake Chelan, reality had a insidious way of tracking me down. I dealt with some extremely uncomfortable work situations that totally threw me for a loop, and left me feeling like a failure once more. I had weird back pain and had to get an emergency MRI. And was still failing to answer the Big Question: I had no epiphanies of what to do with school and life once I left the woods. I still struggled for meaning, craved some sign that what I was doing was valid and significant. I wondered if I was just ‘checking out’ of society, burying my head in sand when so many horrible things were going on in the world outside.

Whether you are mired in suburban hellhole, or in a Narnia dreamscape, there are truths you can’t escape. We might be free beings, but none of us are free from self-doubt and failure. Those things will follow us across state borders and time zones. But even there we have a choice—to fret, or: to work, with all the might of our being, to accept ourselves as we are and do what we can to grow.

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The latter half of the summer I was working the grill at the Stehekin Valley Ranch. After a particularly long day I was surprised to see a familiar looking person walked in—someone who looked very much like Nicholas Kristoff, a columnist for the New York Times, co-author of Half the Sky, and generally just an amazing human rights advocate and feminist. My personal hero. When he ordered a steak and gave his name—Nick— I asked, “as in, Nicholas Kristoff?”. He laughed and said yes, and I proceeded to gush, in a very embarrassing way, about how he’d changed my life. I’d been an art student for two years before deciding I really wanted to get involved with women’s health, in large part inspired by his work. And then I cooked him a steak.

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When your personal hero shows up at your place of work, on the other side of the country in one of the most remote communities in the lower 48, it feels like a divine intervention. This amazing journalist had launched the long series of decisions that had led me to change my major, transfer schools, get frustrated with school and leave for the North Cascades. My brain was spinning.

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We are free beings. We can begin again and again and again, begin in new places, or start over in old ones.

We can’t opt for a life free of frustration, failure and uncertainty. But we can decide, what is worth doing, even if I fail?

 

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