During Homecoming weekend at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado, I was awarded the 2013 ASU Outstanding New Alumna Award. Here’s the little speech I gave when I accepted the award. The picture shows Rhonda Schoenecker, who introduced me, and me on the right.
ASU has a saying that great stories begin here. If my own story serves as an example, I couldn’t agree more. What’s happened since I graduated in 2007 is so full of unexpected twists and plot turns that sometimes I wonder if I’m the author of my own story.
Let me give you the back story first. I’m a classic boomer, a child of the 60s. Although I had enough smarts to be accepted at Radcliffe and attend two years at Antioch, I dropped out of college in 1971. Why? Because I was majoring in drugs. Lucky for me, I must have retained enough brain cells to realize I was wasting my parents’ hard-earned money. Like so many others, I was caught up in the general confusion and turmoil of the times – anti war protests, women’s liberation, civil rights and the black power movement, you name it.
But lucky for me, dropping out of college didn’t mean the end of my education. To the contrary, I began to navigate a self-directed life-long education that has focused on art, the body, writing, and teaching.
My arts education was strongly influenced by two uncles. I never met my famous uncle, the figurative painter David Park, but I grew up with his paintings and discovered at a young age how to work with line, shape, and color. When I was in my twenties and thirties, my other uncle, sculptor Gordon Newell, mentored me through a 15 year stone carving apprenticeship (a subject about which I wrote in my recent memoir Seeing Into Stone: A Sculptor’s Journey.) Gordon taught me to keep my tools sharp, go with the grain, and to develop the kind of patience and perseverance that can carve stone, chip by chip. I learned from both uncles that art will always be the central theme of my story, and I continue to carve wood and stone, paint, make masks and fiber art; I will go wherever art takes me.
My lifelong study of the body stems from growing up with handicapped family members and my own evolving vision problems. When my father returned from the Pacific theatre during WWII, he brought polio back with him, which decimated his upper body. Later, my younger sister was born with spina bifita, which has crippled her lower body. And, as you can see, one of my eyes has opted out of looking at the world.
My study of the body has led to a number of alternative body therapies, and the non-violent martial art of Aikido, which I have practiced and taught for 35 years. Although I’m not doing formal practice right now, the principles of Aikido—grounding, centering, extending energy, 360 degree awareness—inform how I approach life, and lately, horses. I’m currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled From Revenge to Reconciliation: How Aikido principles can help you stay sane in a crazy world.
Sometimes we don’t see parts of our stories coming; those unexpected plot twists take us by surprise as if the characters themselves grab the pen and write their own lines. For example, I never would have imagined that I would volunteer for four years in a women’s prison where I founded a holistic health program for inmates and staff alike. Although I’m pretty sure the prison’s motto wasn’t anything close to “Great Stories Begin Here,” many of the women I was honored to work with DID begin great stories in prison; they not only began to write about their lives; they began to consciously re-construct their stories based on an entirely new set of criteria. Their stories, and how those remarkable women influenced my own, was the subject of a book I wrote, which I hope to revise and publish, titled Soaring Over the Wall: A Volunteer’s Collection of Freedom Stories.
The most surprising plot twist in my story was my decision to return to college at the over ripe, non-traditional age of 53, thanks in large part to my husband Henry’s encouragement. Upon admittance, ASU graciously informed me that none of my college credits 33 years prior would be accepted (I’m not sure Admissions knew about the majoring in drugs part); instead I was granted probationary status. I had to start from the very beginning again, even though my fellow students were young enough to be my children and possibly my grandchildren.
Four years later, I graduated suma cum laude with a 4.0 GPA with a major in creative writing and a minor in theatre. Many thanks to all my teachers at ASU and everyone who helped me accomplish that.
I liked the feeling of my brain working so much that I took another big risk when I decided to go on the grad school. With Henry’s support and guidance, I graduated in 2010 from the distance learning program at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA with an MFA in creative writing/non-fiction. My mentors at Lesley not only helped me birth and publish my memoir; they also encouraged me to teach.
And so that brings me to the part of the story I’m pretty sure the ASU administration doesn’t know about: I began teaching English here before I got my MFA. Actually it’s worse than that. My ASU teaching career began even before I graduated from here! Remember when phys ed was still a gen-ed requirement? From 1999-2002, I taught Aikido and Conflict Resolution through Aikido. In 2007 and 2008 I also taught Aikido for Actors and Movement for Puppeteers. Thank goodness not everyone plays strictly by the book. Makes for a MUCH more interesting story.
But back to how I started teaching English here. When Aaron Abeyta asked me to substitute for his creative writing class, a non-trad student apparently liked my teaching so much that she marched over to David Mazel and told him he should hire me. Which he did. I taught as an adjunct professor from the fall of 2010 until just this spring. Mostly I taught Com Arts 1 and 2, but sometimes I’d be let out of the salt mines to teach Writing the Ten Minute Play and summer creative writing workshops. I have now segued into teaching through ASU Extended Studies: Women and Memoir and Advanced Composition are both launched, and Women and Drama and The Prison Memoir will be my winter projects.
The latest chapter in my story has led Henry and me to pull up stakes and move from our home of 19 years in Jaroso, Colorado, and to risk basically everything we had been working for—jobs and income, friends and community, garden and greenhouse, security and comfort—at an age when most sexagenarians are considering their upcoming retirement and where they want to go fishing.
Why did we decide to move? Because we are following the horses.
I know. I’m not entirely sure what that means either except that I’ve been following the horses since I was a girl. There’s something about being with horses—their ability to mirror our state of mind and encourage a deep, body-based, intuitive, non-articulate wisdom—that feels crucial to my evolving story as a hopefully wise woman. As the old saying goes, there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a person.
And so, that mantra/metaphor—follow the horses—has led us to move to Dolores, CO and the beautiful Four Corners Area. Apparently that move, and the peculiar combination of courage and craziness that drove it, is what caught Julie’s eye to nominate me for this award.
Here’s the really abbreviated version: my cousin Kat Wilder bought a horse ranch just outside Dolores. When we literally couldn’t find pasture in Jaroso for our two horses, Esperanza and her daughter Cinnamon, Kat trailered them over the mountain where they happily joined her growing herd. This summer, Henry and I followed them to live on the ranch where we worked on everything ranch-related: fencing, gardening, irrigation; we helped put on two horsemanship clinics; I’ve been teaching Esperanza to accept the saddle and Cinnamon to pick up her feet; I’ve helped move cattle when neither Esperanza nor I had any experience cowboying before; graphic design and publicity; and both of us, Henry and I, have used ALL of our skills to facilitate clear communication and peaceful conflict resolution amongst the core group living on the ranch. Talk about a steep learning curve.
On the last day of August, we closed on a sweet little property just 4 miles from the ranch, our own mini-farm. The last things to move from Jaroso—my stash of marble, an air compressor, and a marble carving I’ve been working on for several years—will be the last to “follow the horses.”
I’m almost to the end of my little speech. One more very short story. The other day, (a day Esperanza wasn’t being a brat or running away or trying to buck off her saddle), we rode to the top of the ridge overlooking the ranch. Some of the way was clear and open, and some was rock-strewn and tangled. Sometimes I saw the easy way to go, directing Esperanza with a rein or leg or shift in my balance; sometimes Esperanza found the easy way on her own. We were equals in a kind of peaceful partnership I’ve always dreamed of having with a horse, a person, a community, a world.
When we got to the top, the air was so clear I thought I could touch the cliffs of Mesa Verde just to the south. I thought about all the ancient Puebloans who may have paused in their journeys to enjoy the same view. Thinking of those spirits and their stories they’ve left behind helped me realize that we are never the sole authors of our stories. Which way a story or a path will turn is a shared decision, a true collaboration. Sometimes you take the lead; sometimes the story leads you. May you find that curious mixture of courage and craziness to go wherever your story wants to go.