Ethnographic Safari

(short thoughts along my journey towards home)JP_KebunRaya

18. teach (tEEtch) verb. 1. To instruct. 2. To expand the learning potential of another being 3. Rhymes with “preach” and “impeach.” Also rhymes with “reach.”

There’s this cartoon of two women standing in a hallway. One woman is wearing a football helmet, shoulder pads, elbow pads, thick gloves, shin guards, and a bullet-proof vest. The other woman is dressed in a modest shift with sensible shoes, glasses perched on her nose. The second woman says to the first, “I presume you are the substitute teacher?”

Substitute. As if the new person stepping in to a classroom is a lesser version, and therefore OK to bully and torment.

During a recent Grange pancake breakfast, my friend Morgan recounted his favorite classroom incident. Once the kids in his elementary class heard a substitute was assigned, everyone secretly agreed to answer roll call with one word: “chop.” As the sub went down the list, each child called out “Chop! Chop! Chop! Chop!” until the final student declared “Timber!” At which point everyone knocked over their desks and fell with a grand clatter to the floor.

This is a mild torment, kind of cute, and typical of how we treated substitutes in the sixties. Yet in the 21st century, students are less inventive; their tricks veering towards nastiness. One high school substitute strode into a classroom full of condom balloons. She countered the scene with an impromptu lesson on reproduction. In another case, a grade school substitute confronted a whiteboard with the “f” word scrawled across it, followed by “you.” Her response? She instructed the students to come up with an alternative list of words ending with the letters u-c-k, after which she tasked the students to combine their new words into an essay.

I wonder how each of those teachers felt at the end of the school day when they were finally able to go home.

I was a substitute teacher. Twice. Once with second-graders, the other time with high-schoolers. The worst possible classes: physical education (P.E.) and geometry, twenty-plus kids bouncing off the walls. I was given detailed notes on scheduled activities and attendance, but no instructions on how to handle misbehavior. No clues from the absentee teachers on what to do when things went wrong, something we all knew would happen. I was the substitute, for Pete’s sake!

Most of us who choose to teach do so with goodness in our hearts. We want to provide students with knowledge and skill sets to enable them to succeed. When we spend most of our time addressing poor behavior, everyone loses. Eventually student pranks aren’t funny any more. They’re just depressing and costly, diluting our higher callings.

I have this outrageous idea: one where substitute teachers get a new professional name – “relief teachers” – and the teachers they relieve, along the principals and school staff, do everything in their power to support them. Where students are taught to be gracious to every adult charged with teaching, such that at the end of the day all teachers feel relieved: not merely from being freed of youngster torture, but because a super-human task was just made so much easier.

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17. survivor (sir•VIY•vohr) noun. 1. The breathing one(s), post-loss. 2. An organism continuing to function after physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual trauma.  3. A potentially abused term.

The day before today a teenage driver crashed into an oak tree in the middle of our valley. The tree grows down the road from a café where the sloe-eyed owner, eight months pregnant, chats with a regular at the locals’ table. Two people buying cheese danishes confirm the barrista knew the young man, she attended the same high school. My sweetie calls. He is processing the coroner’s report; wreckage photos bear witness on his camera. “The tree didn’t move,” he tells me.

The café and next-door shops are surrounded by bucolic Anderson Valley hillsides engraved with vineyards, the flats grazed by sheep and goats. Our watershed is the Navarro River, but with drought and water diversions, the tributaries have largely dried up. Few steelhead make the return trip, a mute reproach to roadside signs claiming “Fish-Friendly Farming.” I call this stretch of road the “metropolis” of Highway 128 because it’s the only three blocks of reliably open businesses before you reach the sea.

The café door dings open and a former ambulance partner walks in. “Did you attend last night’s Survivor’s Dinner?” I ask. “I feel like more of a survivor than the guy we medevaced,” he confesses, referring to his not-so-long-ago fall from a tree. While he speaks I silently examine the scars on his reconstructed jaw, the part of his body that took the hit from the fall that didn’t kill.

Ambulance guy walks out and I return to my writing. I recall an earlier run-in with an auntie and a tribal chairwoman where they both recognized my guy, unmistakable in his sheriff’s uniform. The chairwoman nodded approvingly to me, said he’s been good when dealing with people on her reservation. Auntie introduced herself to him: “I was the last one to live in the Valley. Ours was the last family left after the genocides.” But my guy is distracted, waiting for his café order.

Auntie carries a weight shared by so many people I love, including an artist-friend whom I chatted with after a recent modeling session. “Whenever I hear statistics for percentages of the population affected by this or that, they cite numbers for Whites, African-Americans, and Asians. Maybe for Pacific Islanders, too. They never mention – what do they call us – Native Americans,” he said. “What am I supposed to think?” “That we are so few we don’t count?”

His words reverberate in my head in parallel with The Corrs singing in my earphones, “you’re forgiven…but not forgotten.” We live in a world of elephantine problems, complicated by elephantine memories. If we truly believe that All Lives Matter, how do we operationalize our belief? How do we turn towards, instead of away?

How do we knit the arteries running from my veins to yours, so that one of us does not bleed dry?

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16. emerge/ -ent (ee•MRRG/ •uhnt) adjective, verb. 1. to exit a protective cover. 2. an individual coming into being, e.g., “an emergent scholar.” 3. a term surprisingly less fraught than its cognate, emergency.

When a young plant emerges from a seed, the first part to break through the dissolving seed coat is the root tip. The tip is crammed with growth hormones and meristematic cells, constantly expanding: pushing through and breaking apart soil particles. Environmental cues start the process: light, water, heat, or, in the case of certain fire-adapted plants, smoke.

Traditional Hopi believe this initial stage of plant life is so charged, so intensely sacred, that elders wait to teach youth about seedlings. They shield children from images of cotyledons – the first pair of emergent plant leaves – until they are of sufficient age to appreciate the knowledge.

Last night I slept in a hilltop guest room, the duvet a polka-dot replica of my home bed covers. Sliding glass windows faced south and west, no curtains blocking the view. Having arisen voluntarily at 5 a.m. (a highly unusual, almost unprecedented act), I typed in a space lit only by my computer screen. For one and one-half hours, each time I looked up, I contemplated the possibility of unending darkness.

Then the all-black shifted to midnight blue, followed by deep indigo, slate blue, misty grayish blue, eventually merging into white with a milky-blue tint. Quiet. I could see distant edges of Pacific waves, emerging and fading from coastal fog.

“You can walk from here to the ocean,” said my host, celebrating four years of living here. “But I haven’t done it yet.”

I wonder how long it would take.

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15. exquisite (eks•KWIZ•et) adjective. 1. Beauteous. 2. So uniquely magnificent you want to squeeze it! 3. An everyday occurrence, courtesy of the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen in our lung’s alveoli.

Years ago during a psychosomatic wipe-out a tribal healer diagnosed me as living my life upside down. To paraphrase the healer, I woke up and slammed directly into negative emotions, which affected my physical well-being and my mental abilities. I wasn’t getting even close to the spiritual plane because I was so consumed by drama.

Think about it: if we begin our days with radio news, or even worse, TV news, we’re subjected to crises, violence, catastrophes before we’ve even woken up properly. Even if we forgo the news, and instead, while showering or brushing our teeth, our brains indulge in hamster-wheeling the latest stressful incident at work or home, our shoulders start to tighten, our mouths begin to clench, and we forget to breathe.

His solution? Start each day with kick-butt gratitude. Be thankful for the gift of life; a renewable gift we can shape and re-shape via the hundreds of different choices we’re presented with during every 24-hour period.

I have to remind myself of the gratitude thing constantly. Some days more than others. Unless I’m smart about structuring in breathing time: like today, where I’ve planted myself in an outdoors patio, within staring distance of the Pacific.

Thank you, sun. Thank you, breeze. Thank you, ocean. Thank you, my sweet, delicate, exquisite alveoli.

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14. recidivism/t (rih•SIH•dih•vihzm/vihst) noun. 1. Self sabotage. 2. Recycling felonious choices. 3. The normative state of Homo sapiens.

We are all villains when we repeat offend. Despite our best efforts, we slip n’ slide. Learn and forget. Backslide again, temporarily stuck in the same damn mess we thought we’d circumnavigated.

Financial difficulties. Parataxic distorations (overreactions triggered by unresolved past experiences). Excess baggage. Too much chilli pepper or wasabi.

The other week I succumbed to the allure of the NDN Stock Exchange (a.k.a. the casino) and lost $80. No big deal, unless that amount = a substantial chunk of the food/clothing/fuel budget. In the spirit of my theological training, I could have beaten myself up about it.

Yet recriminations are helpful if, and only if, they catalyze change. Anything else is just another form of imprisonment, with or without walls and a government-issued jumpsuit.

Not what the Creator had in mind. So what can we do when we slip out of the groove?

Try this:

#1 – Celebrate we *have* a groove.

#2 – Forgive.

#3 – Move on.

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13. nostomania (NO•stoh•MAY•nee•ah) noun. 1. Intense homesickness; an irresistible compulsion to return home. 2. A profound yearning for a person or place to cuddle, permanently. 3. The aching hope for a reliable abode.

Homes and homelands used to be sacred. Where we built our lives/livelihoods, our origins/identities, our life-cycle rituals and joy. Where we knew, and were known.

I have now lived without a home for ten years (thank you, Has-Been #2). Yes, I have occupied studios, apartments, hotels, houses, trailers, and an Airstream. Yes, it was my fault for prioritizing profession over permanence.

One could – or rather, I could – return to my adoptive tribe’s homelands in eastern Indonesia, gather large bundles of bamboo and thatch and palm-fiber rope, and erect A Hut. This is my back pocket option, if I could forego Life As Currently Lived (plumbing, i-Everything, exquisite NorCal cuisine). There, I would sit at Amé’s (Daddy, the Chief’s) feet. Literally, as traditional seating = floor mats, and continue my instruction in All Things Tado. Might even begin amassing a small water buffalo herd.

Then there’s Plan B: Be content with a rather sterile bed-sit in a remote County where my CV intimidates, rather than inspires. Continue to operate with 82% of my life in storage. Catch myself gritting my teeth a hundred times a day, and remind myself to unclench, breathe.

Plan C? Create a customized tiny home. Combine creativity with humility. Divest in order to reinvest. Hope and ask for lots of help, because I can’t do this alone.

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12. there (THAYR) noun, adverb. 1. An affirmation of participation viz., “I was there [at the People’s Climate March]. 2. An assertion of reality viz., “There is no planet B.”

We humans are contributing to climate change on a geological scale. Changes not seen in 800,000 years of earth’s history.

Carbon dioxide: Average atmospheric CO2 concentration for February 2016 = 400.26 ppm, far above our 350 ppm target. Temperature: Average global temperature is up 0.75°C (1.35°F) since the last century; while ocean temperatures have increased 0.65°C (1.17°F). Sea levels: since 1870, ocean levels have risen 195 mm (7.7 in), and are continuing to rise an average of 3mm (0.12 in)/year.  Ocean acidity: Overall, ocean pH has fallen by 0.1 units: a 30% increase in acidity, since the pH scale, like the Richter scale, is logarithmic.

On Sunday, September 21st, I joined the People’s Climate March, the largest environmental march in world history. Eighty blocks long in New York City:  310,000+ marchers of every stripe, creed, and persuasion, echoed by 2800+ simultaneous events in 160+ countries.

We carried fill-in-the-blank signs saying “I’m marching for…” and people wrote: my daughters. Mother Earth. Justice. Biophilia. Everyone. Amongst the crowd were people from communities experiencing increased glacier melts, heightened storms, flooding, and extended drought.

We were there. Climate change is here.

When/where/how can you/I/we join to move our world back from the brink?

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11. tread (trehdd) noun, verb. 1. a groove in the sole of a shoe or a rubber tire, a groove that both enables and wears. 2. a stepping upon that may be unwanted (Don’t tread on me!”) 3. a survival technique employed in deep water to avoid drowning.

Tread, dread, bled, red, dead, lead, fed, wed, said, ClubMed.

When we are embedded in a continuous-loop reality, when we have grown weary of diving back into diminishing reserves, it is hard to reclaim our chutzpah. Our feistiness, once bubbly, has drained into our big toe. We forget we are worthy.

Yet we are still breathing. We have retained all (most?) of our faculties. Our skills and talents, our unique take on the world. Our ability to be kind, to others and to ourselves.

When my limbs are rubbery, when I feel stepped on once too many times and it seems like stupidly lucky people have all I lack and crave, I dive into my bag of tricks: the pomegranate twists, the dog licks, the iTunes, the Netflix comedies. I use these tricks to haul my soul out of the chilly waves and onto the nearest ledge, where I can suck in deep breaths and rub the salt from my eyes. Contemplate plunging in again.

“Promise me you will not spend so much so much time treading water and trying to keep your head about the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim.” – Tyler Knott Gregson

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10. parity (PAYHR•ih•tee) noun. 1. equity within all flavors of relations. 2. authentic, automatic reciprocity. 3. a terribly rare state of affairs.

Every so often a question floats around FaceBook: “if you could get rid the world of one thing, what would it be?” Typical answers: cancer, greed, hate, ignorance, pollution, poverty, racism, religion, bed bugs.

Mostly people list things that would disappear if we applied the Principle of Parity, i.e., you can suck the blood out of me only if i can do the same to you.

Or, to put it more positively, the Golden Rule.

An ethic I try to emulate, a little better each day. Taking care with, caring about, caring for others in the ways I wish (hopelessly, at times) to be treated. The ultra-pierced café cashier. The plant confined to its pot on hot summer days. The spider stuck in the sink. The farmers, farm laborers, factory workers invisibly linked to the products I consume. The people I admit into my Inner Circle.

A tall order, I know. And yet. If only more of us made the effort. Stretched a bit further, summoned the psychic where-with-all to try harder. Rejected paralysis by analysis. Acknowledged the ongoing, outward-extending ripples of our actions.

Practiced loving kindness…and then practiced again. And again.

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9. diversity (duh•VERS•ee•tee or dih•VR•see•ti) noun. 1. an inventory box to tick. 2. a rare richness. 3. the United Nations of Jeanine’s Loves.

Six weeks, three conferences: Vermont, New York, Oregon. Forward-thinking, conscientious, talented professionals. Writers, poets, editors. Instructors, practitioners, scientists. On average, 2.8 non-pink, non-freckled people per venue. A smattering of EU citizens, several guys with clear Asiatic or Mediterranean heritage, one gorgeous Black poet, one Native American, with us for two hours.

I do not understand how we can authentically engage in art or science while wedded to such homogeneity. We are crowding ourselves into the white-flour-high-fructose-corn-syrup corner of the supermarket. We are starving.

I crave more.

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8. creation (cree•AA•shn) noun. 1. bringing into being. 2. storytelling.

The Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) tell of the beginning of the world, when Coyote taunted the Monster, who was devouring all the animals, to swallow him. After breaking many knives in the slicing and dicing of the Monster’s heart, Coyote wrung its blood onto the ground; blood that became the Nimiipuu, the Coeur d’Alene, the Blackfeet.

My friend, of unquenchable eyes and hands, took me to visit the Heart of the Monster, an incongruous rock-encrusted bump next to a highway wending around and through the Idaho portion of the reservation. He spoke of heroism, and I considered the heroes in my book, the people transforming less-than into more, into her-and his-stories of empowered change.

Sometimes, to create, like the goddess Shiva, we must destroy. Divest. Diminish the power of the pain, the patterns, the stuff that cripples us in situ, like flies on sticky paper. Question our stories, eliminate unhelpful plot lines, birth new ones. Carve up the Monster’s heart and bring new life into being.

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7. charity (CHAYR•ee•tee) noun, verb. 1. gracious giving (viz., nurturing); 2. burdensome giving (viz., paternalism); EX. toxic charity, i.e., hand-out burnout.

Tim, the griddle master at The County Seat diner, has me pegged for Sriracha hot sauce. “I can tell the kind you want, because it’s my job to know these things,” he announces, after steering me away from the lactose-laden gravy in the Fritz Special. I ask for bacon instead. Two seats down, a gentleman catches me eying his plate. “Fried Mash,” he explains, and insists on carving off a bite of the polenta-y grits for me to taste.

The man to my left makes a disparaging remark about the local Latino population. I respond with a gentle reminder of Who Was Here First. “I’m sick of hearing that argument,” says he. “My people came here in 1721. We were God-fearing, hardworking folk. The Indians turned their back on God. That’s why He allowed them to be killed off.”

I look at this man and imagine how his insides must twist into the most awful pain when he says things like that. How he’s grown so accustomed to the awfulness, to the paucity of love, that he doesn’t realize he can let it go, let the bitterness, the feelings of inadequacy and anger, go.

Suddenly one of the waitresses exclaims, “I know where I know you from! The Buckhorn in Boonville!” and after we marvel over the coincidences, I switch the conversation back to talking about chickens. “That’s the answer to my problems? Chickens?” he asks.

In between orders, Tim hands me a flyer for his business, Polykarmic Recycling 2.0, an industrial-electronic-everything recovery business whose labor pool includes the underemployed and “sometimes homeless.” Showers, lockers, day beds, provided. Tim’s mom is Fritz, who founded the diner 30-odd years ago, pre-divorce, back when my menu choice was “Lee’s Special.”

Last night, after rattling the Mennonite tree, a fellow Bread-Loafer helped me find a place to sleep. Her mother-in-law (and my impromptu hostess) Becky, who directed me to the diner, got a fire in her eyes during our morning coffee as she described her efforts to transition a local free clinic into a sliding-scale provider that better honors the dignity of their clients.

Recognizing the balance tipping towards the Good People of Goshen, I choose not to overtly challenge Mr. Pent Up. We finish our food in silence. At the cash register, before he leaves, he says something that puzzles me until I decode its unspoken messages. “You’re right, he confides, “chickens calm the soul.”

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6. joy (JOI) noun, verb. 1. to recognize and exude deep delight; 2. the exaltation of commonplace, everyday gifts; 3. the name of my one-and-only Pfeiffer sister.

Last night’s post-dinner reading, chosen randomly by 14-year-old Max – the mercurial, strikingly perceptive, skate-boarding elder son of Harvard-based (the village, not the U or the Square) friends – was a quote from Paramahansa Yogananda:

Joy we live and have our being,
and in that sacred Joy, we will one day melt again.

I requested a slower re-read from Max, and after much page-flipping to relocate the words, he obliged. And I, we, sat around the table, licking insanely sweet frosting off our lips and fingers from a cupcake collection of red velvet, peach cobbler, piña colada, and Boston cream pie, embodying the swami’s exhortation quite splendidly.

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5. kindred (KIN•drehd) noun. 1. the [re-]recognition that we are all, indeed, of the same blood; 2. All Our Relations; viz., kindred spirit.

At a senior center luncheon in Maynard, Anna Zolotuslaya, b. 1925, Ukrainian ex-professor turned gleeful internet surfer, recounts how she saved a wedding ceremony forty-five years ago. Apparently the couple lacked a certain form – one piece of paper – and the officiant balked. “This, after the bride’s parents had been cooking for a week!” says Anna with indignant compassion. She got fierce, confronted the officiant. Problem solved. According to Anna, we are too mild these days, soft in our so-called democracies.

Five years ago, before U-hauling myself from Maynard to Mendocino, Anna commanded me, “next time you talk to me, you must be happy.” So I waited until those words were true. Waded through a half-decade of fire, death, loss. When I remind Anna of our agreement she burst-melts into a smile and says, “the best thing we can do in life is bring happiness to others. I think I have done this in my life.” And then she tells me the wedding story.

At the end of the luncheon, after absconding with most of the leftover donuts, Anna folded the newspaper (carrying the latest news on Ukraine, where craziness rules, again, and the children of her former students, whom she considers as her children, are dying, again) under her arm and began the mile-plus, mostly uphill, trek back home. Pushing her walker, me trailing alongside. I give her kisses on both cheeks. We will see each other again on Thursday. Otherwise I could not bear to part.

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4. alignment (ah•LYN•mint) noun. 1. marrying our principles with our hearts’ desires; 2. decreasing the need for spiritual chiropracty.

As I continue this Extended Love Tour, dipping into the lives of friends and colleagues I’ve known for 5 – 35+ years and bearing witness to each others’ choices, I ponder this word. What it means to be aligned, to have connectivity in all aspects of our individual and collective journeys.

Along the horse-and-buggy traversed Highway 896 I stopped to buy two bottles of home-brewed root beer from a young Amish girl, a.k.a. Cuteness Incarnate. We talked about the jellyfish image on my T-shirt, her brother and sister sidling up to listen in. At one point I shared that I was looking for a local bulk-goods store my girlfriend told me about. “Who is she?” asked the girl. In answering, I searched through my social memory banks, and found a thread: my girlfriend as the niece of a generous-hearted Amish aunt, whom I loved too, and whose recent passing haunts both of us.

When we choose to take the time, when we find joy in small things, when we share worlds, when we mourn and celebrate together that which is most important, this is alignment.

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3. writing (RAI•teeng) noun, verb. 1. exalted scribbling. 2. repeatedly, endlessly, [re]ordering words. 3. an ancient communication technique (vs. texting, tweeting, chatting, IM-ing, SMS-ing, Skype-ing, Instagram-ing, YouTube-ing, etc.). 4. the preferred modus operandi of literate introverts.

For 100+ hours, I’ve been ensconced in a glorious medley of 80+ fellow environmentally-focused writer-types. I’m sitting in the Barn while Randy, our Numero Uno bartender (thank you Bread Loaf for $2 beers & wine) puts the place back in order from last night’s love-in by the fireplace, commenting “you guys really must’ve had a good time, the chairs are all over the place!”

This Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s conference was the first ever. Inaugural. Experimental. Desperately needed. Terrifically supportive. A game-changer.

Day 2, sitting by the fireplace in the Inn lobby (rainy, windy, chilly days) I had the joy of opening up the weblink to my second published piece, which is wicked funny. Days 3-4 involved talking up my book with editors and agents. Day 5 my group workshopped my essay on scorpions, “Bite Me.” Day 7, now that we are all relaxed and bonded and groovy, we have to go home.

Wah.

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(after driving 3700 miles, approximately)

2. estranged (ehs•STRAINjd) adjective. 1. to enter the other side of Alice’s Looking Glass. 2. to be the sore-thumb stranger in a foreign-yet-familiar place.

The asphalt bumps and pocks oddly; the New England foliage obscenely lush and dense, mocking my drought-ridden homelands. Now it is too hot and muggy for feed store cowgirl boots, so instead I sport the tended toes of a suburbanite; painted by beefy, longish-crew-cut Kelley of Nice One Nails in Belleville, Michigan.

Within the traveling container circus of my newly peripatetic lifestyle, I have five kinds of inebriant (including a vintage martini briefcase), four soil samples (for making natural paint), three needle-tip gel pens, two stir-crazy dogs, and one cellphone that doesn’t work amongst the mosquito swarms at Bread Loaf. The dessicated blossoms of a Belmont synagogue parking lot have insinuated petals into every corner of my rental Chevy, a constant reminder of blessings.

On this trip I am re-devoting myself to birthing prose that cracks hearts open. To spending lengthy sessions with those whom I love and rarely see. And to weaving stronger fibers into the threadbare ends of dreams and hopes and wishes.

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1. ethnographic safari (ehth•no•GRAF•ick suh•FAR•ee), noun. 1.  an extensive and intensive study of various human habits and habitats; 2. a sexy title for five months of house-less-ness.

As of May 2014, my life is split between two storage rooms (one inland, one on the coast), I’m playing bedroom roulette across friends’ homes, and my V.I.P.s (Very Important Possessions) are nestled in a series of innovative containers, mostly in the trunk of my car.

I am in this state because I trusted people who turned into Slime-Scum-Slumlords. And because a candid assessment of my finances revealed two choices: I could invest in finding a home for my book, or a home for myself, but not both.

So I am practicing being an expert in surrender. As in, surrendering to the feelings of pervasive displacement and sadness. Giving up on penetrating the defenses of Mr. Man. Realizing I will never catch up on email. Caving in and buying another set of iPhone ear-mic thingies, because I lost them; spending precious dollars on costly new glasses because a friend’s dog crunched mine.

There will be joy, eventually. I know this. But the past few weeks have sucked bad.

2 thoughts on “Ethnographic Safari”

  1. Enjoyed your ramblings. I tend to do a bit myself. I am also in the process of moving from inland to coast. I might see you by the sea sometime. Happy Travels! L

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