What the Water Gave Me

The alarm goes off at 5:34am during the week, and honestly, there’s no real reason it has to be that early. I’m slow moving in the morning, and at this stage, I know myself well enough to give that unreasonable cushion of time to get myself going. The first few minutes are me bartering with myself for more sleep, but I’m a shit bargainer, and also, I enjoy what’s coming. By the time I’m brushing my teeth, I’m not really tired; that doesn’t hit until around noon, while I’m sitting in a chair, staring at dual monitors and an unreasonable stack of IMs, full of somehow even more unreasonable content.

I have never been athletic, not for lack of trying. In middle school I was on the basketball team solely for the intimidation purposes of my height. Although, one game in with my lack of both skill and endurance on display, the intimidation factor wore off rather quickly. The first time I ran a mile and a half, I fainted. As an adult, I failed a fitness test three times, next to marines, navy/army personnel, and other assorted demigods. You could ask me the context of that one sometime, but I signed an NDA. Again: Not. For. Lack. Of. Trying.

Then the water beckoned me. At first, a heated pool with only four lanes and a few older people slowly making their way to and fro. It was a non-intimidating start. I was the youngest and the fastest, and I had an awful lot to learn. Routine for swimming is essential, and it’s not for the faint of heart. You can’t just throw on a good pair of sweats and running shoes and have at it, more coordination is involved. I’ve seen plenty of hopefuls come through and disappear because they couldn’t figure out how to sustain it, and it’s not easy. Early on, there were more than a few instances where I’d forgotten a key piece of the puzzle, and just wound up going to work early and disappointed. The gear you need, from suit to towels/goggles/ear plugs/anti-chlorine shampoo, and how to carry it all without looking like you’re fleeing the country, takes a while to figure out. You also have to consider your exit strategy. If you’re going to work and you want to look like a human being by the time you get in for your 9am meeting, you’re going to need  a hair dryer, maybe some assorted products, and some well put together corporate casual clothes.

Once you master your routine, you have the water to contend with. My experience with swimming was the same as most: Summer camp, community outdoor pools, maybe Long Island Sound before I was old enough to know better. Laps, strokes, flips, hydrodynamics/drag, were all just theory. I joined my local community center, of whose praises I will sing to nearly any ear that will listen, including you, and which is a million times cheaper and more consistent than any YMCA. The pool was not heated, I was no longer the youngest nor the fastest, and my head-above-the-water-panting-at-the-end-of-every-pool-length ways would not fly there. So I got harder on myself.  I traded in my ruffled two piece for a legitimate Speedo, and was shocked at the difference in my speed. I’d inadvertently been strength training with all of the drag the ruffles had caused. From there, I wondered what else I could do. Could I flip? Could I swim non-stop? I watched the others, showed up every week day- barring extenuating circumstances- and mimicked what I saw. The thing that shocked me the most was not that I became athletic, it was that I made friends.

It’s been five years since I’ve begun taking this seriously, and it’s given me everything I’ve put into it tenfold. Physically, I feel better than ever, emotionally, I love that place and all it’s done for me. On the days that I can’t go, I feel irrationally and unshakably guilty. During alone vacation, I search, in vain, for a pool to take temporary shelter in. It’s not work for me, it’s not a dreaded exercise. It’s not a countdown to when I can stop, like so many other routines were. It’s the one place I’m strong and fast. A place where I can set a goal, reach it, and start working toward another, while loving every second of it. It’s a necessary piece to my puzzle. It’s also given me unexpected things like an actual community. People whose names were originally ‘The Grey Lady’, ‘Mickey the Mouth’, ‘ The Doctor’, ‘Kenny Rogers’, ‘Nemesis’ in my head, now all have their proper names. I’ve adopted the swimmer formerly known as Kenny Rogers as a coach. With his moral support, I’m working my way to a mile non-stop each morning. Right now I’m 90% of the way there, he insists that I’ll be at a mile by the end of August. He’s right, I’m three laps away from that goal.

At the end of each morning, I take time to close my eyes and float for a while with only my nose/mouth above the surface. The depth could be endless beneath me, but each time I touch my feet down to the familiar tile, I find friends bobbing along side of me, and face a day a bit brighter for it all.

Grief in Short Form

Perhaps the strangest part of grief is the waves that it comes in. When it actually hits you, and the ways that it hits you. About eight months in, I’ve been struck with the strange notion that my phone is going to ring, and his face is going pop up on the display- the picture I took in Starbucks after my birthday dinner seven years ago. The idea fills me with a weird fear, bordering on a paranoia that’s been mimicked in recent dreams. Is he still alive? Was this all some elaborate hoax, perhaps tax evasion? ‘The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated?’ …Do I answer?

The last dream included the supposed footage of his last moments in life, involving a 20-30 years younger-than-he-actually-was-at-the-time self, walking down a highway in a black motorcycle jacket, with a stormy sky as a backdrop, and the overall tone of surveillance footage.

I can still hear his “Hi, Vaness” in my head, and on my computer, since I’ve hoarded the majority of his voicemails in their digital format. Due to a technical blip, I almost lost all of them recently, and when the customer service rep asked why I had so many stored on my phone (two out from the max), I had to bite back tears. I’ve since backed them up several times.

I’ve started doing that for everyone that I love.
I wonder if it’s unhealthy.

Now, presently, or really about ten minutes ago, as I’m standing in the kitchen eating peanut butter swirled ice cream out of the carton, one of the first brands to offer a quart of the vegan stuff,  I think: Dad would get a kick out of this. While I’m packing for my annual reprieve, I think about all of his comments on how he felt when I left for vacation on my own. I think about the 1/2 pound less of fudge I’ll have to buy from our old favorite candy shop. I think about not having to scour the endless, sappy, inapplicable and disingenuous father’s day cards to find just one that’s right. It’s not a relief. I think about his laugh when he was impressed. His use of ‘be that as it may’ to transition a conversation. How he’d repeat the same German potato salad story over and over. That insipid diner he insisted on going to when we’d visit; the old-people diner, with the jukeboxes in each booth and a glowing case full of desserts that looked so perfect and shiny as to be fake. How, later in life, he’d always ask ‘Do they appreciate you?’ about work, about a partner.

Grief is a living, breathing animal. It wraps itself around you like a snake, not maliciously, not with the intent to hurt or devour you, but never forget that it can; and if you let it, it will. As it sheds it skin, the feeling changes. You become angry, this was preventable, this didn’t have to happen, it chokes you with the intensity. Other times, its grip can be warm, comforting. That person is always with you, the memories of them a light in the dark, a constant presence, even a guardian. As time goes by, the grief becomes a specter itself. A shadow, lighter, ever changing and shifting, but still present. Whispering on the edge of your perception, sometimes encouraging and warm, and other times, quite frankly, a dick. It becomes part of you, this shadowy and moody appendage. It fluxes and it wanes, and it constantly reminds you that you can’t change things, you can only change how you respond to them.

How a 7am Train Ride Got Me into Mycology

It’s October 11th, 2008, at around 7 something AM on a Saturday morning and I’m on a train heading into the city. Two of these things are my favorite things (October, a Saturday) and two of these things sit more on the conflicting side of my temperament (Morning, the city) The early train is quiet, streaked with that cliched golden morning light that really does exist, as it turns out, and the car’s persistent rocking is lulling me back into a dream-like state even as it rushes me towards the looming grey maw of New York.

I’m given the minimum of information. There’s a society of sorts, they do this on the regular, there will be a large group, and people trained in its specifics. Obviously, I’m sold. Told only to bring five bucks, my own knife, and a brown paper bag, I’m worried about making it on time.

Somewhere in New Jersey just south of the city, in a rather unassuming park, a group of about forty enthusiasts descends, issuing tips on where to look, how to handle, and to never ever eat without clear and certain identification. They range from older hippie, to fresh-faced kindergartners, and a lot of flannel is involved. These are the members of the mycological society, a not-so-secret, but not exactly sought after group. On that fall morning, I began a strange journey that continued throughout the next almost decade.  I’ve met some great people, I’ve eaten some weird things, and I’ve gotten an array of looks when I try to talk to other people about it. If we know each other, chances are you’ve given me one of those looks.

Mycology is, at its simplest, the study of fungi. It can also be so much more than that, food, medicine, environment, ecology, the answer to questions that weren’t even asked. My experiences with it are largely in the dabbling range. There are mushroom walks, what I call ‘hunts’, that occur in your friendly neighborhood mycological association from Spring through Fall. If you’re afraid of commitment, you don’t need to join. If you’re afraid of the expense, they are largely free. They are always welcoming, there’s almost always food, it’s almost always vegan, or at least vegetarian, and members love to share what they know and point out finds along the way.

That October morning, as we wandered through the park poking at old logs and looking under fallen leaves, we had no idea what to expect, and certainly no idea how to find anything. To this day, despite my passion for it, I remain one of the worst locators of wild mushrooms, unless Wholefoods counts. At the end of the afternoon, we had managed to scrounge up a few poisonous varieties, a pair of choice edible bluets, and a tiny nub of hen of the woods donated by a member that took pity on us. We placed our meager haul on a group table with everyone else, and the walk leader ran through what each one was, and what the choice edibles were.

Mushrooms are decidedly strange things, and have a weird way of bringing people together. My work mug is decorated with several types of mushrooms, and now I know that a colleague and her husband go on hunts every now and then, have a few new places to explore, and that chicken of the woods mushrooms are good in scrambled eggs. Yes, there’s a hen of the woods as well as a chicken of the woods. Even though the nomenclature for mushrooms is widely diverse and often very amusing, in this case, two of the sought after edibles have to do with chickens. Go figure.

I’ve mourned not taking the opportunity to stop the car and forage that same chicken of the woods variety I spotted on a tree during the commute to my old job, where I watched it grow from its vibrant orange to a dull and crumbled brown as the days passed.  A matter of weeks later, I spotted a familiar orange glow from my desk at home, only to find a substantial growth of the mushroom in question in my own backyard. Sometimes we do get second chances, it would seem. I’ve had long conversations over cups of freshly brewed chaga, a process that I hear involves grinding the unwieldy chunks down and slowly bubbling it like a witches brew until it turns into a slightly thicker and darker-than-coffee elixir that tastes kind of like coffee and a lot like earth. There are a couple of chunks hiding in my cabinet now, I may be a bit daunted by that process, or worried that my spice grinder wouldn’t be able to handle it. I’ve run through campgrounds in Rhode Island after a thunderstorm, taking pictures of countless mushrooms springing out of every conceivable surface. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve haunted a farmer’s market with vendors that grow or forage wild varieties not usually found, like lion’s mane, which, at a distance, look like puppies but are decidedly not puppies. That same market offers a chaga tincture, for those too wary to brew their own tea. I may or may not have a bottle of lion’s mane tincture in my house now. Why, you may ask. Why not? I’ve even discovered that I can, in fact, kind of draw, if I’m drawing mushrooms. My expanded library contains several volumes of mushroom identification guides, a gorgeously illustrated coffee table book, and a weighty textbook on radical mycology to round it out.

I have a strange relationship with mycology. Out of context, it may sound crazy to run around with a group of strangers in the woods putting things that were just in the ground that morning into your mouth. There’s a certain level of trust, or maybe blindness, that goes along with that activity. Additionally telling people those kinds of stories, and then encouraging them to join you on the next one, well that shows you who your friends really are. It’s a strange, wonderful, vast and diverse field that means a lot of things to a lot of people. You don’t even have to go far to find out what it means to you.

What’s wrong with being alone?

What do you do?
Excuse me?
What do you do when you’re there?
I can feel the smile unfurling over my face before I even realize it
Nothing. I tell them. I do nothing.
I take a week
Every year
I go to the mountains
And I do nothing
it’s glorious.

I rise early, I haunt the bookshop intricate enough to be a small town of its own, I  fortify my stronghold at the back table of the coffee shop, as I’ve mentioned previously, I convince a marvelous chef/owner couple to cook me a multi course vegan meal as I get drunk very slowly on something gingery/bourbon-y, I avoid writing my book, I take pictures that usually involve levitation/skulls/or hair flipping, I go to the unrivaled farmers markets and geek out with vendors over lion’s mane mushrooms because everyone has to have their passions and mycology is an amazing thing, I watch an awful lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation- or as I like to call it, Saturdays with Jean Luc. I go on literal and figurative tangents.

I do nothing.
The best kind of thing.
If I could stay a month, a season, a year, a lifetime, it wouldn’t be enough.

Doing things like this, these miraculous nothings, can bring about a lot of questions, or a lot of statements disguised as questions. You’re married, what does your husband think, but what do you do, is that safe, don’t you get lonely, and why. Some people get kind of angry and that throws me off.

Honestly, I don’t know why it isn’t more of a thing. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do this, circumstances not withstanding. I know, I sell my soul for the majority of the year (re: I’ve worked in finance for twelve years, please send help) so that I can actually get away to do this. Working with that concept, even on a small scale, to take yourself out to dinner, take yourself out to a movie, to get to know who you are when no one else is around because it’s critically important to understand yourself, and because it just feels good. Do it because suffering in your day-to-day is not a badge to be proudly displayed. Do it in the name of self care. Tell any naysayers that Vanessa told you to. You can blame me if you need to, I’ve got your back.

Typically, I go loaded up with books I’ve been meaning to read and art supplies I’ve been meaning to break into. I take all the things and projects that I look at in my daily life, lamenting for more time, and so I don’t travel light. The other side of that coin is that I very rarely touch 90% of what I bring with me and often curse myself while schlepping it back. Instead, I immerse myself in my surroundings, finding new books to read, new ideas for pictures, new recipes to try, though I’m comforted by having the options I brought along with me if I decide to change my mind. I spend the weeks leading up to said vacation making lists of what I want to do, what I’ll bring and questionably what I’ll use, what pantry items I should take because it’s a full condo for that immersive alone experience, and what books I’ve been looking forward to. Lists of even the senses of things I’ve been missing, the crunch of gravel beneath my feet, the smell of the wood, the vault of the sky that seems somehow unique to that place. I pick out the music I’ll play in the car while I ride up, I look up the route in case I’ve forgotten it (I haven’t), I’ll stare longingly at the forecasts for the area, and I wait.

Despite the name, alone vacation isn’t about the avoidance of people. Yes, I go up in the off season so it isn’t crazy crowded, but there are the hushed crowds at the bookstore, the two old professors in the cafe talking about getting credits towards their teaching licenses and how that gets more difficult the older they get, the off beat teen in the top hat that may have something to prove or may be ahead of their time, the baristas that have started to recognize you, the kid in fatigues at the farmer’s market who strikes up conversation with you as you listen to the fiddler and the cicadas (forever pronounced: Chi-ca-dahs), the antique vendor that helps you identify the skull you’ve taken a shine to, and the woman at the candy shop that gives you an extra quarter pound of the fudge you give as gifts upon your return. The sounds and sites and normalcy of life going on all around you, and the role you play within it, is a part of the experience. At the end of the day you can return to your fortress of solitude, comforted by the liquid baritone of your favorite starship captain, feast on some foraged mushrooms, and reflect on it all. You are the captain of your own ship, and the path you take is decided by you alone, and so is what you take from the experience. That freedom can be daunting, even in the most simple of tasks, but it is rewarding because it’s yours.

Around March/April without fail, the dreams begin. Slightly heightened, as if something has turned up the volume, and over-saturated, I dream of the mountains, the roads to get there, and of never having to come back. Seeing my life from a birds-eye view, an actual map spread beneath me, full of high summits and deep water, and picking that one clear path I know is the answer. Like those damned Helvetica font faced trendy mugs or posters boasting the Muir quote “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” The mountains do not gently beckon, they do not whisper, they roar, they echo, they demand, and each year, I heed. I would tell you to come with me, but that would defeat the purpose now, wouldn’t it?