Telluride, Colorado c. 1984

My Simple Life

Recently, I decided to seek help with my career path. I’ve been freelance for most of my adult life, and while recent media suggests the future lies in freelance, I’d begun to question whether I wanted to continue in that direction. After reviewing thus far, it turns out it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve chosen to go my own route.

After high school, in a seemingly rebellious streak, I declined a track scholarship, then dropped out of flight school and business college altogether. I opted to spend seasons sea kayak guiding in the waters of an island off the coast of LA, skiing in North Idaho and waiting tables. It didn’t pan out horribly — I wound up as a sponsored extreme skier, traveled half the world, started a ‘zine and landed a job with the 2002 Winter Olympics. Later, I went back to school to study the visual arts. One thing led to another and I found myself in the marshes of southern Iraq creating photos for a personal project.

During those years I made lists but I ignored the rules, or following through on goals for that matter. If I’d had a credo, it probably would have been, “Why not?”

OAK -> BDU in the Spezio Tuholer c. 2009

We flew a lot when I was a kid. My Dad’s first plane was a 1940 Aeronca that he got in Alaska in 1971. Dad wasn’t one for rules either. He may or may not have had a license but I didn’t care, I loved flying over the glaciers and the mountains.

In retrospect, I can’t say no to flying adventures. A few years ago I eagerly volunteered to help a friend ferry his open cockpit 2-seater experimental from Oakland, California to Boulder, Colorado. We nearly ran out of fuel on the first leg. Serious rejiggering of the flight plan ensued at an agricultural airfield in the Central Valley. Last summer, with a day’s notice, I agreed to get in another small plane with people I didn’t know to spend a weekend in an undisclosed location with more strangers. My only instructions were to pack a swimsuit and a white dress. I asked, “How much experience does the pilot have?” and then I said yes. It was such a great time, I’m going again this year.

Truth be told, it’s not just flying adventures. There was that time a friend called at 9am on a Saturday morning…, “Hey, wanna go to Vegas for the last Prince show at the Rio?”

I said, “When?”

He responded, “We’ll be there in 20 minutes to pick you up.”

“Sure! Why not?” *

Or that time I extended a return ticket from a work trip in France so I could jet over to Rome to spend a week with an amazing man I had just met. I mean, why not? Who better to see Rome with, if not a local.

Why not join my friend Willa on a weeklong horseback riding trek through Transylvania, even though I hadn’t ridden in 15 years? Why not stick around Romania for another month to pursue an idea about the largest remaining wilderness area in Europe?

Why not go to Iraq to look for answers to humanity’s disconnection from nature?

Why not?
Why not ski powder? Tanners, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah c. 2001

I didn’t think of myself as a rule-breaker growing up — I thought it was perfectly normal for a young girl to dream of being a Formula 1 driver and a figure skater.

While watching the ’88 Calgary Winter Olympics, inspired by the sparkly figure skaters’ outfits, I cut-up my beloved Seventeen’s to create collages of all my favorite prom dresses. I obsessed over ballet. For a few years I practiced what I thought were plie’s and pointe every night in my bedroom but that seemed too far-fetched so I moved on. In between chores on our small ranch, I devoured Dad’s auto magazines. Denise McCluggage became my heroine, and Autoweek was my first subscription when I moved out of the house.

Mom & Dad, Modesto, California c. 1962

I talked with Dad the other day, about Mom. We lost her to an accident when I was 16, days after her 45th birthday. Dad raised my sister and I from the time I was 8. They reconciled when I was 14. She and my younger brother moved back in with us, and for two short years we were technically a family again.

It wasn’t easy, those two years. My parents’ relationship ended the first time for a reason. They were volatile together. Dad was his own kind of stubborn narcissist. My mother’s childhood had been destroyed by sexual abuse, and there was even less understanding of the effects back then.

When she died there was about a week of mourning before allegations of wrongdoing surfaced — investigations led to depositions and front page articles. Eventually the case was dismissed but in the meantime our small town didn’t feel like home anymore. I left soon after graduation, Dad sold the ranch that same year.

He said she dreamt about things. Like a horse ranch. And a new car.

“The funny thing was, the things that she thought would make her happy, didn’t make her happy. It’s like everything backfired on her because it didn’t work how she thought or wanted it too.”

So I asked, “What kinds of things did make her happy?”

“Simple little things, like growing stuff in the garden, going and picking herbs in the mountains. Real simple things.”

He went on, “She loved to grow things, and have plants, and things like that. She was a natural green thumb.”

Schwilling family homestead, Chase County, Kansas 2011

When I got older sometimes I dreamt about other things. Like a garden. A home. A husband, a partner, a long term anything. I dreamt about kids. I even met someone I dreamt of doing those things with, but I didn’t know how and I made a mess of it. I fought him as fiercely as I loved him. Why? I didn’t really know. When I finally began to realize what I had done, devastatingly, it was too late.

One night, a few years ago, I had an incredibly simple dream — it was just a window with snow falling. Though I couldn’t see anything else, I felt myself in the kitchen making breakfast. My family was going about their morning routines in the coziness of our home as the snow piled up outside that window, and in the mountains where we skied. The dream was so tactile that I knew what layers lay beneath the new snow as a culmination of the season’s precipitation; and I sensed what it would feel like to be skinning through the new-fallen snow that day, breaking trail on the way to the ridge. It was such an incredible feeling of warmth — to be in the kitchen on that snowy morning and to have such an intimate connection with my family and those snowflakes.

I wish I could have said, “Why not?” to those dreams of a simple life but there was a hitch, and it’s only something I’ve come to understand as a result of a serious illness eight years ago. At the time, I was a year away from simultaneously finishing a BFA and a master’s level studio arts program, launching my career, and sailing off into my dream life as an artist.

Instead, I fell ill. So ill that I dropped out of school, and then work, and what felt like life. I finally saw someone, which turned out to be a life-saving move. Dr. Barbara Berkeley assessed the situation and referred me on to Dr. Maggie Philips, a leading trauma psychotherapist.

At first, I didn’t get it.

After a while, I realized that most of my life had been seemingly scripted by an incident that occurred when I was an infant. I was severely burned at four months, and the ensuing treatment read like an ongoing torture scene in a spy novel.

The problem with preverbal childhood trauma is that it doesn’t seem like a big deal.

Who remembers things that far back?

The body, that’s who.

The physiological ramifications are daunting. In this Ted Talk Dr. Nadine Burke Harris explains the real, tangible effects on the development of the brain. She talks about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study which is revealing the health, social and economic risks resulting from childhood trauma.

Dr. Peter Levine is one of the preeminent contributors to the field of stress and trauma. Here he describes the disastrous effects of unresolved trauma on the body.

Essentially, what my body learned during treatment for those burns (whether I remember it or not) was how to be on high alert. My “adventurous”, and unstable, childhood went on to perpetuate a pattern that became my physiological baseline. The tragedy of my mother’s early death, overshadowed by allegations, investigations, hearings and front page stories, derailed what semblance of normalcy remained.

As I write this I’ve come to understand that my dreams of a simple life fall into what most would call the “normal” or “stable” category.

Which is fine, except stable invoked an irrational fear in me akin to what most people have of traditionally scary things like heights, or sharks. As nice as it sounds, and as fond as I am of the idea, my body wasn’t keen on it. Eventually, I found myself striking out, running away or freezing up altogether.

The things that should have felt like home, and safe and stable, felt like life or death situations.

It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what it felt like.

Ironically, when things started to get dicey and the shit was hitting the fan, I was in my element. I was calm, cool and collected. I took charge, and took care of things. It was both exhilarating, and exhausting. And, frankly, I was over it.

Apparently, so was my body.

After crashing down, I strived for years to regain a sense of self. At some point I gave up on healing and started to believe my life was forever stunted. Thanks to incredibly supportive family and friends, and mindfulness practices like dance, restorative yoga, neuromovement, and meditation, I’ve realized it’s not so black and white.

The body can navigate stressful times with a lot more grace when a solid foundation is in place.

I’ve embraced the reality that the transformation from being a victim to being empowered is fueled by choice. Choice means I have the ability to take responsibility for myself. Over time, fear shifts to curiosity which leads to awareness and eventually an understanding of what stability means to me.

Abu Haider, Central Marsh, Iraq 2013

There’s one more thing — In 2013 and 2014, I went to the marshes of Mesopotamia curious about modern humanity’s disconnection from nature. I also had a fierce determination to move on with my life. As a landscape photographer, I presumed the images would be about the recovery of the birthplace of civilization.

The first day I learned otherwise. Standing on the remains of a destroyed school, our boatman Abu Haider said, “When I returned in 2003… Home was no more. My marshes became dry desert that you see today. And since then I move from one place to the other, wherever there is reeds, wherever there is water, wherever there is fishing. I move to wherever there is living. This is my life. It’s been a long time. I can’t remember my childhood.”

He went on to explain, “When we were young we were different, families and neighbors together, we go to our neighbors house, we share what we have. Not today. Today …. even the weather is different.”

There it was, the unexpected answer to my question.

While the destruction of the marshes was a tragedy, the loss of a community nurtured over 2,000 years was the horrific reality. Today the marshes exist in a delicate place between rebirth and the possibility of another ecocide — reeds wave majestically above the rippled waters, kingfishers hover, water buffalo low, and the people who have returned are dedicated to recreating the home they once knew.

The summer of 2014, due in part to crappy personal choices, I experienced a relapse akin to the depression and exhaustion I had suffered years ago. Revisiting that place was far from pleasant. The old fears were suffocating and paralyzing. In short, it was grim.

Then I realized — the people that are like family to me in Iraq, those in the south who are recovering from the unimaginable loss of a 2,000 year old community and those in the north who were violently displaced similarly — they are fighting for a safe and stable home.

And here I am, in a place where a solid foundation is actually a viable choice.

So why not try to do the hardest thing I’ve never done? Why not choose a simple life?

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