Summertime Packing

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Summertime Packing

Orah Minder

"Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, Exodos, 3:5

In order to create an independent self one may attempt to realize something that cannot be taught by external forces: a something that is absolutely internal without surface space. An absolutely internal object seems to deny logic, there are, however, some who believe in it, and search for it. If this something exists than one may exist disentangled from the web of external influences. This is a form of self-realization. The person who realizes an essence that is absolutely contained within the self, a part that has no contact with anything that is not self and, for that matter, any part of the self that has contact with that which is not the self, this person eliminates the risk of falling into other's patterns and failing to establish a new pattern. The end of this paper describes one who is looking for this autonomous self: a self that is not influenced by patterns: pre-plowed paths made by others. What the character does not realize at the end of this essay is that her beginning resides in her end. The past is never lost. Everything sensed, if not remembered, is planted into the woven fabric of the self. The living self is wrapped into the folds of the world. Time is not flat, but swaddles us so we cannot escape from it.

There are, however, other forms of self-realization. Instead of detaching oneself from influences, denying them access into one's gullet because of their foreign taste, one may acknowledge these influences and in so doing digest them into the matrix of the self. This is a form of integrated self-realization. There is no demand to choose which of these views is better. Those who live by the latter are more peaceful. Those who live by the former are busy searching. Those who live by both live in shards.

The day before a mid-August family vacation is the hottest day of the year. The day is endured in the aura of the air-conditioner, interrupted only by sprints to the Popsicle-filled freezer. Despite all efforts, the heat finds a way to saturate our moods. The light morning conversations yield to a sweat-drenched, soggy silence. By four o'clock we emit only steam. We feel melted and grumpy. Like trees hung with heavy moss along southern highways, we are still lest our sagging spirits slip from us and we become puddles of once-personality. The unmixed ingredients for an argument wait to be poured into the open.

Inevitably, it is my mother's responsibility to demand that the spirits stop their sagging, that the puddles form coherent matter, that we wash our faces and drink cool water and help her to pack the car. Some mothers cook dinner. Some mothers drive the kids to school. Some mothers shop for clothes. In mid-August my mother packs the car in the late afternoon.

My father does not pack the car. A car packed by my father looks like a compressed junk show ready to be exploded onto a random side-of-the-road lawn. The process of piling suitcases and removing suitcases and realizing that doors will not close because of suitcases and the inevitable rearranging of suitcases, is not in my father's motor skills vocabulary. His lack of car-packing skills may be due to the fact that my father's family did not take family vacations. My father never watched a car being packed. When, therefore, he is put to the task of filling an empty car with suitcases, he inevitably creates the illusion of a vehicle filled with an impending junk show. I cannot refer to this act of vehicle loading as 'packing.' My father stuffs cars.

My mother, on the other hand, grew up in a vacation-taking-family with six children and two adults. My mother's father might not have had to put effort into the packing of the car if he had driven his eight-person family in a big yellow school bus to all vacation destinations. Since, however, he did not own a bus with ample space to transport a pack of children, a wife, and weeks worth of clothes and food, his only option was to pack the meanest vacation ride on the east coast. My mother follows the tire-marked-path of her father's well-packed car.

Since my mother always packs the car, my father has never had to study the art of car-packing. He is entrenched in his passive role as one who receives commands from my mother. Each year he enters into his passive role as she toils over suitcase placement. One would think that after 25 years of summer vacations an amoeba could decipher a difference between the act of 'stuffing' and the act of 'packing.' These 25 years, however, seem to have entrenched my parents deeper into these stagnant roles. Their roles grow more stable each year. Routine flows from them as if the years of habit have imprinted the motions of the day into their muscle memory.

I have learned in the years since I noticed this imbalance of leadership roles that it is not to my advantage to agonize about the dynamics of my parent's relationship, but rather, to be aware of how the role playing models they perform are translated through me as one who acts in the world. I try to observe them with a distance similar to that which separates a member of an audience from actors on a stage. I watch with a critical eye how their choices inhabit their lives. I am critical of my parent's play not because I want to alter the choices they've made, but rather, in attempt to use their model as I form my own life. There is no reason for my parents to know these criticisms. The detachment of the critic allows me to make these observations, to watch my parents as players, without becoming entangled in the frustrated emotions of wanting to change their relationship.

Frustration arises no longer from an urge to project myself as a catalyst for change into my parent's relationship, but rather, when I feel unable to change something in myself because I have been presented with only one model. Sometimes when I look into the landscape of the future it seems already tilled, with rows to walk that tell of the hoeing and shoveling of others. I grew up in fields plowed by my parents: carefully grooved so I would not fall into dangerous pits. I learned to walk by watching them walk in their fields. My feet and heart fell into a rhythm dictated by the shape of their land. Time stretches out: disappearing at the crest of both horizons. We are taught by our parents to walk in time. Our hearts learn to step in pace with our parents. At the edge of the fields, however, there is a place where the rows stop. My parents do not walk beyond into the untilled fields. 'That land in the distance,' they explained to me, 'is land upon which no one walks.'

'There,' they said, 'there are no footprints.'

'That land,' they said, 'is yours.'

It was an early morning in late autumn, before dawn. I walked down the plowed rows of their field. As the sun began to rise I reached the end of the rows. No matter how well a path is paved, how easy the walking, one is helpless in a terrain that is not her own. When walking on such land one runs the risk of falling into a pit dug by another. My heart must learn its own rhythm. My lungs must feel the sting of the uncontained world that spills over the frontier horizon.

Tilling does not come naturally to me. Walking on unpaved terrain is a skill that I am learning. I do not want to plummet into roles: pack cars well because my mother packed cars well. I do not want gravity to drag me into my future. My land must be marked with intention. I do not necessarily move with direction, with an end in sight, but I do move with purpose: to weave myself beautifully into the landscape of my allotted time.

This summer I began to learn how to walk into frontier landscapes. I participated in a forty-day expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School in the northern Wilderness of Alaska. On July 8th I was taught to pack a backpack with the supplies needed for forty days in the Wilderness. On July 9th, 10th, and 11th I traveled deep into the Wilderness. On July 12th I started to walk, with a backpack holding all that I needed strapped tight to my hips and back. There are no paths in the Alaskan Wilderness. Each step must be thought out: which tussock can hold my body and pack? Or, if I step between the tussocks, at what angle will my feet stay the driest?

For the next 40 days I walked land that had never before been walked. The smell of a newborn world lingered on the air. We walk these lands in our bright apparel: stains against the flow of natural colors. We are strange in the Wilderness: first breaths that startle the infant lung. The summertime sun keeps a careful watch over the untilled lands at the top of the world, never allowing the night to drop its heavy shawl against its parent-gaze. Only for brief hours does the sun sink lightly beneath the horizon. Summer nights in the Arctic are the hours when the infant world, relieved from the sun's hot gaze, exhales morning dew. I rise in these hours to feel the vague remembrances of misty nighttime clothing against my skin. This is the scape of my land: an unaccented stretch of unwatched time into which I will place mark.

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