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Just a stinky man…with wings

April 10, 2008

I have been many things in this life. I am a daughter, a sister and an aunt. I have long been a student, for a short time been a teacher, and for one glorious summer years ago I was a horse wrangler. Twice now I’ve been a wife and I’m a mother four times over. But recently my multifaceted identity expanded again to include a label bestowed upon me by my disgruntled three-year-old. Still branded in my mind is the vision of Graysen, his blonde hair a messy shock above furrowed brows. He wore Lightning McQueen briefs backward, so that he could see the picture. From behind it appeared that he was sporting a thong. With hands planted on non-existent hips he puffed his bony chest out indignantly. What I did to upset him and inspire the insult is lost to me now. All I can recall is that the miniscule vision in underwear struck that pose, leveled his eyes at me and barked, “you’re just a stinky man!”
Eighteen years ago–long before my own son twisted my gender and accused me of being odiferous–I spent three days in complete solitude contemplating my identity. I was just out of high school, a freshman at Prescott College, and feeling out of my element. Part of the curriculum at PC is an orientation by way of an extended backpacking trip. Aside from hiking upwards of 60 miles with full packs, we were also expected to complete a “solo”–three days completely alone and without food. If ever there was an opportunity for a deeper look into oneself, this was it. Instead of learning something profound about my existence, however, I found myself shrinking from the spiders that seemed to gravitate toward the shelter of my tarp on rainy nights. By the second day I was licking the powdery dregs from the foil wrappers of Emergen-C I’d smuggled in with me, and on the third I was carving up prickly pear fruit and getting a tongue full of microscopic spines. I spent far more time writing detailed lists of favorite food in my journal than I did expounding on my immersion in nature. But I also remember the homesick journal entry I prefaced with the caterpillar’s question: who are you? In that moment as I shivered in the rain, my hand cramping as I wrote beneath the confines of my plastic poncho, I listed everything I thought I was. And instead of some epiphany, I felt bereft of any identity at all when I read what I had written. Despite the labels I knew, something essential was missing.
A few weeks later my instructor returned my orientation journal with a note in the margin of that page. You are all of these things, she wrote…and many more besides. It would be awhile before I would fully appreciate what it meant to be so many things, and even longer to understand that none of them alone ultimately defined me. Years later I would finally realize that life is not static, but back then some part of my teenage self craved stasis…perhaps because I hadn’t quite found a solid footing in the the world.
Now that I have my feet on the ground I yearn for that edgy freedom I found on that long ago trip. Far too often my days are filled with the trifles of navigating this chaos that has become mine. I felt drawn to motherhood for the inherent rawness of it all, only to find myself caught in the ironic truth that this mothering gig is also imbued with rawness in the form of fatigue. My days are generally defined by lunches to be made, socks to be washed, miles to be driven, markers to be capped, Hot Wheels to be dragged back to the light from the black depths beneath the stove…. And as I muddle about the mundane details trying to ensure that these kids have a happy childhood, I fondly recall that small tarp in the wilderness and the sound of the rain.
Now, kids with bruised knees and sensitive egos square off with me, and in the face of their emotion of the moment I must help them set roots. Meanwhile, their unreserved and creative interpretation of things, such as how to insult one’s mother, reminds me what it means to let go of reason, sometimes, and fly. Someday I will once again find my own wings. I will fly down the long winding road through the desert in a (preferably red) convertible with the top down, John Hiatt cranking through the stereo, heading for parts as yet unknown. I will turn my face into the sun and find the peace that is the quiet of a night in the wilderness. I will explore the seldom-seen backcountry of wherever, and spend days in glorious solitude. Someday I will be this unfettered. I will ignore the clocks and the passage of days.
And someday…I will miss these four crazies. But for now, I am their everything, as it should be. And I am proud to be just another stinky man.

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