Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reclaiming Wonder

I was raised in the Methodist church and some of my strongest memories from childhood are from a Methodist church camp in the Laurel Highlands called Jumonville. When my mother was growing up she also went to Jumonville. My grandmother was a youth group leader for a number of years and she took her youth there many times. My brother and his wife were engaged at Jumonville and eventually married in the small church there. Needless to say, there is a deep family history there.

The Laurel Highlands is exemplary of the beauty of the Pennsylvania landscape. The mountains in this area are called the Alleghenies and they are the highest point in the state, including the tallest peak, Mount Davis (which I always got a kick out of as a child). The Alleghenies are part of the larger Appalachian mountain range. The mountains really offer some amazing views as you ascend "The Summit", the large hill on which the church camp sits. I don't think that many people realize how beautiful this state is unless they have traveled here. Even moreso if they have camped here and there are a number of state parks in the Laurels. Keystone, Kooser, Laurel Hill, Laurel Mountain, Laurel Ridge, Laurel Summit, Linn Run, and Ohiopyle. My family discovered their love of camping in the Laurel Highlands and we would often visit Jumonville on our way to and from a camping trip.

Jumonville has a number of stakes in the history of the region and the country. It is the site of the Battle of Jumonville Glen during the French and Indian War. This became the opening battle of this war and George Washington spent time traipsing around this area during his days as a lieutenant colonel. Fort Necessity is just down the road from Jumonville. When I was young I remember thinking it was strange how our first President was so entangled with our state's history. That I could stand on the same land where men killed one another. That it was now where I was expected to go and pray and learn about Jesus.

Jumonville Christian Camp & Retreat Center has its own claim to fame. High atop the mountain where the camp is located sits a giant, 60-foot steel cross. Because the Laurel Highlands have such tall, majestic mountain peaks, some of the peaks can be seen from hundreds miles away. As you drive up National Road (route 40) you can easily make out in the distance this massive white construction.  As children, my brothers and I would try to be the first one to find the cross among the distant peaks. The cross was an important part of my youth, as I spent many summers and weekends there with my youth group. I've had communion, sang, danced, quoted scripture, and just generally marveled at the splendor of such a grand monument to the Christian tradition. However, while the cross was always a fitting miniature mecca as a budding Christian, I always managed to walk past it and gaze out at the view from the mountain it sat on, where the campers could see up to 50 miles and into seven different counties on a clear day.

While I loved the cross and the feelings of spiritual awe I experienced there, I was more fascinated by another natural and historical area, the small glen where the Jumonville battle first took place. There are large rocks scattered about the area, many of which you will find with large, round dents in them. These dents are sometimes large enough to hold a bowling ball, should someone need a place to hold theirs. I was a teenager when I learned that those dents were made from the cannons that were shot during the Battle of Fort Necessity. Dents like that pepper the rocks all over the Laurel Highlands and to this day I am still both facsinated by the technology and offended by the violence that converged on this beautiful landscape. At one point, I probably even prayed for the people that died in that battle a few times.

It's strange how this place holds so much baggage. There is historical baggage of violence, death and war that was ultimately about power and greed over landownership. There is religious baggage, now that a Christian camp has staked claim in a natural space, merging the awe of Nature with the awe of God. There is my own personal baggage of coming to terms with losing my religion. Of accepting the beauty of a place, despite its associations with things that I feel tear us away from and cheapen the intense experience of the outdoor, like war and religion.

We have spoken a lot in my class about appropriation. Of land, history, culture, environment and nature. Staking claim in something and manipulating it to suit your own purposes. Certainly the Laurel Highlands and Jumonville have been appropriated. Whether it be a sixty foot, white cross or 250 year old cannon ball dents in the million year old rocks, humans have wanted to leave their mark. Almost like taking credit for the creation of a natural space. I feel it would be doing the land a disservice to be ignorant of its history. However, I think now that I am adult who has come to terms with and embraced her secularism, I can quietly put away that baggage and marvel at something humans did not create. I can be content with leaving behind the spiritual wonder of my childhood and reclaiming the natural wonder of the beauty of the Laurel Highlands.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Countdown

Yesterday I splashed coffee on my MacBook. At first I didn't think anything of it, but then my keys began to stick and my space bar was acting strange. I quickly called my technology guru (aka: Sal) to give me some advice on how to clean it. I had already taken a damp cloth to it but it clearly wasn't working. Turns out, the best chance I had at saving my laptop was by turning  it off and letting it sit upside-down for 72 hours. Good thing I brought my work laptop home. It's still unnerving though. My backup drive is formatted for Macs so I can use it on my hp work laptop. But I managed to back up all my work and get most of what I might need for three days onto a flash drive.

During this process, I realized just how important my laptop is. I'm pretty much a snob when it comes to computers. I love love love my MacBook. I loathe loathe loathe this Windows laptop. In the two years I have had my MacBook, I have never had any problems with it. That is, until I spilled hot coffee on it and the keyboard went haywire. A birage of thoughts began to stampede through my brain:

"What about all my photos and music? I don't back those up. Dammit I need a bigger hard drive. God I hate using a Windows machine! I have no video chat on this thing. What if I lose everything on my backup drive? All my tax files and what not? I'm sure my backup missed something!"

What device, if any, has ever been so central or important to a person's life? My entire life is literally on this machine. My business. My finances. My saved passwords to any site I've ever been on. My writing. All my writing. Even though I managed to back up my documents, what if I couldn't have? Prior to that backup, I hadn't done it in over 10 days. I would have certainly lost data. And to replace this four year old laptop with one exactly like it would still cost between $500 and $700 bucks, not to mention the cost of a new one. It hurts to think about getting a new one. I don't have that kind of money to throw around.

Today at 48 hours in, I'm anxious. I want my laptop back. I hate this stupid computer. It's big and bulky and freezes when I play video. It's ugly. My MacBook is so sleek and tiny and writerly. I do find it demonically hilarious that my laptop is on the fritz while I'm trying to reconnect with nature. Right when I realize it's possible my addiction to dependence on technology is what caused me to lose my connection with nature in the first place. Did my coffee leap out of the cup in order to force me to write by hand? Did I secretly want to spill on my laptop? I almost never bring my work laptop home, but needed it to run a PC-only program over the weekend. I was not without internet, IM and email for long.

I would like to reconcile these parts of my being. I don't see myself becoming less techy. I think it's beneficial for me as a writer and a teacher to be tech-savvy. Who says I can't cry over spilled coffee on my laptop and still love to listen to the birds outside my window? I have spent less time online though, since I kind of hate using this monster of a machine. I've heard at least five different bird calls in the past few days. Maybe a little less tech-loving and a little more tree-hugging is in order. Yes, that was corny, but rather than make this transition so serious it bores me to tears, perhaps I can find a way to make it fun. Who knows? Maybe I'll learn to take a walk without my smart phone.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Frick Park Adventures

I was on a mission today, to find an outdoor space near home. I need space to visit on a weekly basis and write while I'm there as part my class. I decided I'd search for a good spot in Frick Park.

Wow. I can't believe I have not spent more time in Frick Park. I live about 5 minutes away from the largest park in Pittsburgh at 561 acres. There are way more trails than I originally expected and, as I accidentally discovered, they extend well into multiple townships. I first walked down the Biddle trail until it met the Tranquil trail. I sat on a bench nearby for about 40 minutes just reading and people watching. There was a nice little stream behind me and it wasn't too hot out. I managed to get some writing done too; I have the beginnings of a good personal essay. Lots of people passed by with dogs and I've got a few mosquito bites as a result of sitting so close to water PLUS walking at dusk. I need some bug spray. It's just been so long since I've hiked. It felt both strange and increasingly familiar at once.

I've been experiencing a lot of acute anxiety episodes lately. Panic attacks, really. They rarely happen as a result of a specific trigger, but today when I had to leave to find a spot outdoors, I found my heart quicken and my breath become labored. I think some of my anxiety is related to trying new things, or doing things alone. I also don't spend a lot of time outdoors anymore. I'd like to consider saying this is because I am busy, but really the reasons are more layered than that. It's about desire too. I spent a lot of time reflecting on when exactly I lost my desire to spend time outdoors. I still camp with my family, but I rarely seek out my own outdoor experiences. I used to hike, camp, canoe, kayak, even bicycle on occasion, despite the fact that I don't own a bike. When did I become so indoorsy?

I think the answer might lie partially in my affinity for all things techy. This didn't develop until I was in college, when I got my own laptop and had the internet for the first time. In the days when Napster first came out. After that, it seems that more and more of my life was dependent on technology and less and less of my life was oriented toward the great outdoors.

Yet, I still consider myself an outdoorsy person. And today I reminded myself of that. After I finished writing, I walked down the Tranquil trail and there were less people around. I found some more secluded spots for writing and observing. My favorite spot I found was on a rock ledge up a steep embankment off the trail. I decided to see if I could get up there myself, despite my fear of heights (and falling to my death, alone in the woods). I made it, just like others before me, some of who are apparently smokers as evidenced by the cigarette butts I found on the ledge. Just a few though and they didn't ruin the heady experience I felt once I reached the top on my own. The picture is me dangling my feet off the rock's edge looking into the area below. Yeah, I was nervous. Scared of falling. But climbing up there made me feel accomplished. I think I may have found a little place that can my outdoor home for the coming weeks.


When I think about place on a very basic level, the places that I inhabit most can be counted on one hand. Home, my car, work and campus. By far I spend the majority of my time in the first two, with only a measly 25-30 hours a week comprising the latter two. This is product of my current lifestyle: I'm very busy and my work and class demands are stressful.

Home is always shifting. I have moved a lot in the last five years, having three different apartments. It takes very little time for me to settle in and feel at home in a new place. I come from a family of homebodies, so being in my home space is very comforting. I've only lived in my current apartment for 9 months, but it definitely feels like home. I also like the freedom I have in this space; living alone provides me the space to escape. My boyfriend sometimes says that I'm too comfortable at home, and that once I get there after a stressful day, it pulls on me, keeping me indoors for the night. I just really like being home. The outside world is chaotic and unpredictable, and after a stressful day I prefer to shut the world out.

My car is a strange kind of place. Mobile, transitional, temporary. Like a protective little bubble that breaks when I arrive at my new location. I have had my Saturn for almost 7 years now and I'm somewhat emotionally attached to it. I'm not sure if many people would consider their car a "place" but considering how much time I spend in mine, and how much I rely on it, it would be foolish to not reflect. I'll consider this place more actively now in future posts.

While I love home, this is not to say that I don't travel a lot. I do. However, for me, travel has rarely been about the place itself. I don't go on vacations to beaches or tourist stops just for kicks. For the msot part, I travel somewhere because someone I know is living there. My best friend moved to Portland when I was a junior in high school, so since that time I've been traveling to the west coast regularly. My other best friend lives in Chicago, so I visit there often too (and will be in just a couple weeks!). I travel to San Francisco and New York often because my boyfriend lives in the former city and his family lives in the latter. I'm traveling to Rwanda with him this summer as part of a business trip.Travel is almost always about WHO is going to be there, rather than what or where. If my people are there, I'm fine.

Now that I reflect on it, the place I spend the most time is inside my head. I tend to wallow around in my own thoughts, sometimes to a fault. Which is why this blog's title is important; it serves a reminder that there are places outside of my headspace. A reminder to come out and play more often.


I'll be exploring place a lot more in the coming weeks. These posts will be part of my Nature and Environmental Writing course. I'll tag them with NEW so if you want to read just these posts you can click on the tag in the cloud on the side bar.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Yesterday I took my second, third and fourth grade students on a field trip to the Heinz History Center. After our visit, we went on a tour around Pittsburgh in an old WW2 amphibious vehicle that goes into the river and rides around Pittsburgh. It was a cold day, but unusually sunny for Pittsburgh. I managed to get some photos of the city from the river looking onto the point and I was actually taken aback by how lovely my city looked in the sunlight. And it turns out the rivers are green because of healthy plankton, not because of icky pollution. Our rivers actually have bass in them. Amazing!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Holy cow that's a lot of traveling!

Despite all the stress involved with packing, preparation, airports and schedule, I love to travel. I'm going to make a map of all the states I've visited soon. I'm thinking it's almost 20 at this point. I have a TON of travel over the next two months. Here goes...

 Trips for the next few months
  • May 8-9th: Canfield, OH
  • May 11- 15th: San Francisco, CA
  • June 4-7th: Chicago, IL
  • June 11-13th: Ohiopyle, PA
  • Late June/early July: Kigali, Rwanda & (maybe also) South Africa
  • Mid July-Mid August: San Francisco, CA
So far, in preparation for my trip to Africa I've gotten one shot. I need probably six more, plus malaria drugs. I've applied for a Passport so I'm good there. Soon I'll be looking in to getting supplies for travel, like a nice duffle bag and small containers for toiletries that I can take on the plane. I better also get a good travel journal and start writing things down.