Wicked Plants And How We Met

“Thinking about going here to celebrate our anniversary,” Michael texted me. I didn’t have time to read the rest of his message, so was left wondering what anniversary he was talking about. Up until today, we have never celebrated the anniversary of anything. Probably because we don’t even agree on when it was we actually started dating. That, and the fact that–in my opinion– anniversaries are something only married people celebrate.

A little while later, I read the rest of Michael’s message, which was simply a link to a picture posted on Facebook four years ago today. Michael isn’t in the picture. He’s the one behind the camera. But there I am, in front of the information desk at the North Carolina Arboretum, in a line up with the other people who had opted to attend the Meet-up that night.

Four Years Ago Today . . .

Four Years Ago . . .

“Oh, that anniversary,” I thought. The anniversary of the day we first met.

And so it was that Michael picked me up at work and together we drove over to the Arboretum. And that’s when I realized I had never before written the story of how we met.

So voila.

MeetUp.com was created shortly after 9/11 —  it’s a website that physically brings real live people together. You join the site, tell them the things you like doing, and they tell you what groups there are in your area that might be of interest to you. Writing. Pugs. Beer. Hiking. There’s a group for that. French conversation. Board Games. Reiki. There’s a group for that, too. Right here in Asheville. Not only that–this group actually meets. In person. Nearby. Remember when we used to meet people in person?

I first moved to Asheville just six weeks after finishing my first Camino (a 500-mile pilgrimage walk across Spain). Prior to that, I’d never considered myself a hiker. And honestly, I still wasn’t sure I qualified. But I was new to this city. And loved meeting people. And loved talking about the Camino. So I joined the Asheville Hiking Group, hoping to meet some like-minded souls.

Michael joined too. But we didn’t meet on a hike.

There was an exhibit on Wicked Plants at the Arboretum. The exhibit was inspired by a book of the same name, whose subtitle is, “The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities.” Having lived in Asheville a mere two weeks at that point, I would have never known about the exhibit had it not been for Sammy–one of the hike leaders of the Asheville Hiking Group. He put out an invitation saying, “If I don’t set it up as a Meetup, I’ll probably never get around to seeing it before it closes.” I signed up to go. So did Michael.

There is a fee to enter the Arboretum. But those that have yearly passes can take an entire car load in. So we all met in a nearby supermarket parking lot and got into the cars of those with passes. Michael and I were in the same car, but apparently I didn’t make much of an impression–he has no recollection of that car ride.

Being the social butterfly that I am, I talked to quite a few people while walking around that exhibit–which was just as fascinating as it sounds. We walked into what looked like a haunted Victorian house. Home of the Nightshade “family.” The dining room table was set for a banquet–with a feast of foods that could cause illness or death. Or were at one time thought to do so. The bathroom was filled with stinky plants–warding off humans, but attracting pollinators. There were drawers to open, cabinets to peer into, and mysteries to solve.

I have since learned that Michael and I have very different museum-viewing habits. I could spend hours in a place Michael can cruise through in twenty minutes. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that today, upon reliving our visit there, Michael told me we didn’t talk to each other until the last portion of the exhibit–the greenhouse. He had probably been standing there for a while waiting for everyone else to finish.

So in the greenhouse, we talked. Found out we lived near each other. Decided we should car pool to future hikes together. He sent me a friend request on Facebook, which I accepted. Then we didn’t see each other, let alone speak to each other, for 15 months.

. . . And Today. How we got from then to now is a story for another day!

Happy Anniversary to Us . . .

For the next part of our story, click here.

On Teaching and Learning

Taking A Leap

Anatomy and Physiology was my favorite course in college. After spending a semester elbow deep in human cadavers, I returned the next semester as a lab assistant and began tutoring the subject to underclassmen. So ten years later, when my parents saw an ad in the local paper for an A&P instructor at a private college in our area, I decided to apply. But not without hesitation.

  • I had never before taught at a college.
  • I had never before taught A & P.
  • And did you catch that ten years had transpired since I had anything to do with A&P?

But I had a few things going for me.

  • I have a Masters degree. In a related field (physical therapy).
  • I have a Masters in Education, too. Colleges like people with degrees. The more, the better.
  • I had teaching experience. It was mostly one-on-one and in math, but hey.
  • And it was mere weeks before the semester was due to start. In other words, the college may have been a little desperate.

Thankfully, they only needed a lab instructor. Lab, in my opinion, is much easier and much more fun to teach. Sadly, we would not be dissecting cadavers.

After just two semesters, the department chair tried to convince me to teach the lecture portion as well. “You know I’ve never taught A&P,” I reminded her.

I managed to hold her off another year–until she realized it was only my perfectionism stopping me. “You on your worst day is better than any other option we have,” she said.

Well, if you put it like that . . .

After two-and-a-half years there, I moved on to a community college. I taught one semester and didn’t accept the offer of summer teaching because I had decided to give myself a one year sabbatical. The department chair said “If you ever find yourself back in the area and wanting some work, give me a call.”

The Best Laid Plans . . . 

Surprisingly not cold, snow shoeing on Rich Lake.

Surprisingly not cold, snow shoeing on Rich Lake.

Fast-forward to December, 2014. When we moved to Schroon Lake I’d told Michael I wouldn’t stay past the New Year. It’s too cold. After not working for nearly a year (by choice), I felt like it was time to go back. And there weren’t many options in Schroon Lake.

But Michael was excited to spend the winter here. The concept that the lake actually froze–to the point one could drive across it–fascinated him. He wanted to try ice fishing, and walk outside in below zero temperatures. I had none of these desires. But I had some ideas.

My Natural High

I couldn’t decide what avenue to take next in life, but knew I wanted to teach. Of all the jobs I’ve had (and there have been many), they have all involved teaching in some form. The more I taught, the happier I was. I’ve read that you know you’re doing the work you’re meant to be doing if, at the end of the day, you feel energized. After I finish teaching, I’m on a high–I’m replaying what worked and what didn’t, excited for what I’ve learned, what changes I saw in my students, eager for the next class.

Don’t Burn Bridges

So two days before Christmas, I e-mailed the department chair at the community college at which I taught four years earlier. Like most colleges, she had her spring semester staffed. But, like most colleges, things changed last minute. And so it was that I was given ten hours of courses to teach each week for the spring semester.

“They didn’t even interview you?” Michael asked.

“Well, no, but I worked there once already.”

“For one semester. Four years ago!”

Never mind that I was teaching two courses I had never taught before.

“What?” Michael asked. “You mean you don’t know the subject?”

“I probably know a lot of it. I took the course twenty years ago.” I was hoping the material in the General Biology labs I was due to teach overlapped with the material I taught in A&P. Michael laughed. “This makes me think about my college instructors in a whole new light.”

Thankfully, one look at the syllabus and I realized I would be okay. Two-thirds of the labs were things I taught in my three years as an A&P instructor. And the other labs would not be that hard to brush up on.

Home Again, Home Again

The college, however, is back in my hometown–three hours south of Schroon Lake. But the universe has a way of providing whatever one needs. The apartment over my parent’s garage, after having been inhabited continuously for more than thirty years by my grandmother, then my brother, then my youngest sister, was available.

And so it is that I’ve become a commuter. I don’t teach on Fridays, so on Thursdays I head up to Schroon Lake.

On Sundays, I return to the apartment that was once an oasis in my childhood: the place where I could escape the loud, chaotic life of siblings and parents, and take my spot on Grandma’s floor to attend her lesson on all things baseball as we watched the Mets games together.

Grandma didn’t just teach me about baseball. She taught me how to ask nicely for things. She taught me that everything must be put back in its place after I use it. She taught me that BLT’s are a perfectly acceptable breakfast food (as are Entenmann’s chocolate covered donuts).

As I open the two-inch think Biology textbook to prepare for next week’s class, I smile as I realize I’m living in the former home of a woman who taught me things I’d never find in a textbook.


And for those of you wondering: yes,  that list of all the wonderful things Grandma gave us–the one copied onto her tombstone–still sits on the windowsill.

A Gift for Me? Why–Thank You!

The most popular question I get these days is, “Where are you?” The short answer: Schroon Lake, New York. Learning, yet again, to accept the generosity of others. In this case, a rent-free home with more bedrooms than I have holes in my head (visitors are very welcome!).

I know many of you marvel at my ability to seemingly “stumble” into such things. In this case, however, I stumbled into generous parents. My own. Accepting their generosity, however, has had its ups and downs.

1999: Parent as ATM 

“Where do you want to go next?” my father asked as we walked down Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, my mother window shopping not far behind us.

“Well, I need to go to an ATM machine.”

“What? Why? You don’t have any money?”

“I do have money, I just need to get it from the ATM.”

“No, don’t do that. Here,” he said, pulling a wad of cash from his pocket. “What do you need?”

“I don’t need your money Dad. I have my own. Just not on me.”

“You don’t have any cash on you right now?” he asked, sounding incredulous. I took offense.

“No. Nobody my age carries cash anymore.” His brows scrunched together as he tried to figure this out. How could I explain the convenience of ATM machines to a man who has never in his life used one?

My mother piped in, “Lou, leave her alone. Just let her do what she wants.” She could see my frustration rising.

“Well, I can just give you some money,” my father said. “Then you don’t have to get any.”

“I don’t need your money!” I yelled and stomped off ahead of them to find an ATM machine.

Now I’m not complaining that my father likes to give his children money. But as a twenty-something finally out on her own, I wanted to  prove I could support myself. Which meant not taking money from Dad. My mother understood this. My father did not.

“I just wanted to help you out,” my father said when I returned with cash in my pocket. I looked at my mother. She must have tried to help him understand. Couldn’t he just let this go?

“I don’t need your help.” I said with a growl.

“Lou, just drop it,” said my mother. But my father was never good at that.

2011: Love and Money

Years later a friend told me about the Love Languages.”You’ve never heard of this?” he said.

“No. What is it?”

“Well, this therapist has studied lots of people in relationships. He says there are five ways people express love. You can take a test to find what your top two are. The idea is that you and your partner have to know how to speak each other’s languages.”

“Give me an example,” I said.

“Okay. So one of them is physical touch. So let’s say that’s how I like to give and receive love. If you don’t like to hold hands in public, then there may be some conflict there. We have to learn to speak the other person’s language once in a while for it to work.”

That night I googled “Love Languages.” And read and re-read the language called “Receiving Gifts”. That wasn’t me. I lived quite simply and got rid of stuff any chance I got. But you know who liked receiving gifts? My father. Whereas my mother has determined she doesn’t need anything and loves when we give donations in her name for Christmas, my father still likes getting gifts. I read on and learned the way you like to receive affection is also the way you like to give it. And that, right there, explained my father trying to give me money. It wasn’t that he felt I was helpless without him. It was how he showed he loved me. I cried. And here I was pushing away his love all the time. Shouldn’t we all be so lucky to have a dad who shows his affection this way?

I told my mother about the book. “So the next time he offers me money, I’m just going to bite my tongue, and say thank you, and take it.” And that’s just what I did. And what I continue to do to this day.

2013: A New Approach

Dad, to his credit, has also changed his approach. When he gives me a fifty before I leave to go back home after a holiday visit he’ll say, “Now, I know you don’t need this . . . ” Or he’ll give it a purpose, “Here. The gas is on me.” Or “Get yourself a snack at the airport.” To which my mother says, “Or a couple drinks,” with a smile.

Then Dad avoided talking to me about it altogether:  after a three day visit to my home, I walked into the bathroom to find a bill sitting on the ledge below the mirror. He once hid a bill in the case for my iPad. Message received. No words needed.

2014: The Price is Right

And so it is that I’ve accepted Dad (and Mom)’s gift of a place to stay for a couple months. Or longer, if we so choose. I will get back Asheville eventually. But if Dad has his way, not too soon. He loves having all five children living in the same state.  I marvel at the irony of it all: I left New York three years ago saying I would never again live in a place that requires a person wear fleece in May. Yet here I am. Showing Dad how much I love him. 😉

My Third Thing

“A choice between two things is not a choice. It becomes a fight between right or wrong.” I read the sentence again. As the afternoon sun warmed the page, I pulled out my pen to underline it. I had never thought of it like that. No wonder I hate making decisions.

“We need a third thing, a way to step out of the conundrum.” I pulled my pen across the page again. Natalie Goldberg is brilliant, I thought. I sat on a park bench reading her book, “The True Secret of Writing” hoping to get my creative juices flowing again, and it was working. What I didn’t expect was to have so many life lessons pop out at me.

The chapter went on to explain that this “third thing” is not something that we will come up with. And it won’t present itself overnight. But the idea is that if we open ourselves to the possibility of a third thing, it will show up.

So I got down to writing, as the book instructed. What decision was I struggling with? Work. Duh. Six weeks earlier I quit my job thinking I had the perfect idea of what to pursue next (travel writing) only to find myself stymied. By what? I wasn’t sure. So I looked at other options. And though I had many, it was really a struggle between two lifestyles: that of employee–my work life dictated by someone else–or that of the self-employed.

I barely filled up a page. I had debated this so many times I was sick of hearing myself. I closed the notebook.

Four hours later, my third thing showed up.

Well, let me clarify. Yes, four hours later Michael and I decided we were moving to Europe. But like Natalie described, this decision had evolved over time.

Michael first showed up at my door five months earlier, homemade key lime pie in one hand, a mystery box in the other. Had he shown up empty-handed, I still would have been intrigued because I knew he had just returned from nine months in Central America. The majority of men in my dating pool have settled into a work life, a family life, a home life. I tried to fit into that, but, as my friend Jen said the other day, I am “a beautiful square peg” and I should stop trying to smooth my edges to fit into a round hole. I had a feeling Michael wasn’t a round peg either.


I don’t have many regrets in life. In general, I feel like I made the best decisions I could with the information I had. But there is one: I wish I had spent a year living in another country. It was part of my plan. After spending six weeks living with a French-speaking family in Switzerland the summer before my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted more of this experience. I’d heard college was a place where one could do something like this, so instead of doing a “gap year” (taking a year “off” between high school and college to do something incredible), I followed the crowd.

To this day, I can still see the moment my dream crashed and burned: I sat with my parents in the auditorium of Jefferson Hall at the University of Scranton. The fifty of us who had been accepted into the physical therapy program sat with our parents while the chair of the department explained what we was ahead of us. “Does anyone have any questions?” she asked.

I raised my hand. “Can we study abroad?”

She paused and looked at me like I had three heads. She explained the rigorous program, how we were not required to take all the general education courses because we had so many PT courses to take, how we had to start those courses in our junior year. Junior year: the year most students study abroad.

I don’t remember anything else after that. Recalling that conversation still brings tears to my eyes twenty years later.

Michael was twenty-seven when he moved to Paris. He spent three months at the Sorbonne before deciding to move back to New York. He’s regretted it ever since.

What was brewing here was a perfect storm.


Michael’s mother planned on him joining the family on a Mediterranean cruise this summer. Since the day I met him, I knew he didn’t want to go, and I understood. We’re not cruise people. If we’re going to visit a place, we’re not going for a day or a week.

Four hours after I finished writing about my two choices, Michael and I sat on the patio of a coffee shop, the sun pouring down. His mother had finally canceled the deposit on his room (or so she said).  But he’d also learned that, now, both his brothers were going. “Well, now it’s becoming a family trip,” I said. “No wonder your mother wants you to go.”

“Are you saying we should go?” he asked.


“Of course ‘we.’ You think I’d go without you?” Well, frankly, yes. This was the first time the idea of me going had ever come up. I stumbled over my words. I wasn’t a cruise person either. This wasn’t something I budgeted for when I quit my job.

But I figured the ports in the Mediterranean wouldn’t be the tourist traps I had seen in the Caribbean. And I had frequent flyer miles–enough to get us both to Europe.

“You know, if we’re going to go, we should go earlier,” he said. Yep. If we were going to Europe, we were going for at least a month. Hell, why not a year? And with that, my third choice appeared before me.


(Note: Per the Shengen Agreement, we can’t spend more than three months of every six in most of Europe. Unless we buy property there, have a job there, marry a native, etc. So we’re going for three months. At which point we’ll return to the US to attend some family events happening in September and October. And from there, who knows where we’ll go next. What on earth will I do over there? Well, that’s for another post. In short: I’m sure I’ll figure it out.)


Luck? I think not.

I should take showers more often. Not for hygiene reasons (I think life is entirely too short to waste so much of it on such a silly daily ritual). I’d take them more often for this reason only: it’s under that flow of water that I come up with some of my best writing ideas. Tonight, it was this (with apologies for all the hot water wasted because I wanted to keep working on the idea):

Since graduating high school, I have never lived in the same home (or town) more than two years.  I’ve never lived in the same state more  than four. Never held a full-time job longer than sixteen months, a part-time job longer than five years. And this was all by choice.

Long have I wondered if I would ever find “it”: the place, the job, (or, for that matter the spouse) with which I would have a lasting love affair. Conversations with friends  have often centered on this very topic: my (at times exhausting) search for “it.” Ideas about what “it” could be. Where “it” could be. What I’d learned “it” certainly wasn’t.

And then one day I realized (or maybe I read it in a book, or heard it from a friend) that THIS is who I am. Right now, in this moment. It may or may not be my future. But really, who cares dear Rebecca? So what if I never find work I want to do for any length of time. I am, in this moment, someone who finds the idea a little boring. So what if I move every few years? Frankly, the idea often excites me (though my mother will tell you it also very often drives me insane). Because think about it: after just seven months of living in Asheville, I found myself exploring new territory less and less. I had found the places I loved to watched live music, to linger over a good meal with friends, to curl up with a good book. And I didn’t care to search anymore.

But as they (i.e. my mother) say, “The grass is always greener.” When I’m on the road, I often wish for the comfort of knowing exactly the place to go for that perfect meal, that soul-searching conversation, that hip-swaying music. But when I’m in place where I have all of that, my soul starts to whisper, “It’s time.” Time for a trip. Maybe to a new town ten minutes away. Or a country a plane ride away. Or maybe it’s time to move. Or take a sabbatical. 

I have lived a wonderful life, filled with incredible experiences, unforgettable people, some of whom passed through my life for just a moment, others who stuck around a bit longer, and every variation in between. I am damn lucky. Actually, no. As my minister said the other day, “Luck has nothing to do with it.” And a light bulb came on. “You bring into your life that which you put out there.” Oh. My. God.

  • I thought back to the conversation with my mother that very day about the new potential job I seemingly ran into. “Why is it that wherever you go people want to give you jobs?”
  • I remember the time I called a financial planner for advice. In between my contacting him and us having our phone call, his wife read my blog. When I asked his rates he said, “Oh – sorry I didn’t mention this earlier. My wife is completely enamored by you and the way you live your life, and so am I, so we’ve decided to take you on pro bono.” I recalled a friend’s reaction upon hearing this. “How is it you always manage to fall bass-ackwards into these things?”
  • Yes, I’m the girl that had two nights of couchsurfing turn into seven months of rent-free living in a town I loved. Oh, and did I mention my hosts were not only fascinating people, but also had a love of cooking and sharing it with me?

This may all seem lucky to you. Indeed long-time friends, upon hearing what I just “stumbled” into, often say, “Well, I’m surprised, but not really, because it is you after all. Of course it would happen to you.” And maybe that’s just it. Remember the film “It Could Happen to You”? I don’t either, but I remember the title. And silly me, I believed it.

But it turns out it wasn’t silly at all.

  • I’m working thirty-two hours per week these days. I can take those eight hours off whenever I so please. Luck? Nope. When I first took the job, it’s what I said I would do: make myself so indispensable that they couldn’t turn down my request.
  • That free housing in Asheville? Nope. That wasn’t “luck” either. I first of all believed that the world is full of good people, and found a whole community of them at couchsurfing.org. Then I put out to the universe (my friends, strangers) that I’d like to live in Asheville. I didn’t need to know how. I just had to put the idea out there. And the opportunity came to me in a way I never could have imagined.

Don’t limit your possibilities by telling the universe exactly what you want,” my minister said a few weeks ago. “Don’t say you want a million dollars. Because honestly, would you turn down the person who offered you a hundred million? Instead, put the idea of abundance out there. And watch what happens. There’s more out there than you ever imagined.”

Huh. This woman knew me. I’m the girl that thinks the question “Where do you want to be in five years” is so silly for this very reason. “There is no way I could know that,” I say. “Do you have any idea how many things exist now that none of us imagined five years ago? And you want me to limit my thinking to only what I know, only what I can envision? Five years from now I’ll be doing things none of us could have never predicted.” But they’ll be things someone put out to the universe at some point. And “by luck,” they showed up.


Go ahead. Try it. I dare you. Put some outrageous idea out there. No need to figure out how it will happen. That’s not necessary. Just believe in the idea. Write it down. Tell a few people. Or not. Make a collage about it. Or not. Just put it out there, then hide it away or tell the world. And watch what happens.

Finding Optimism

In order to live the life that I do, you need a good dose of optimism; a belief that another adventure will come your way, and so will the means to fund it.  Optimism was not something I was born with.  It came to me after a trip I took when I was 15 years old.

My earth science teacher had posters all over his classroom of people rock climbing or dog sledding, and at the bottom were always the words “Outward Bound.”  This was long before the internet existed, so it wasn’t like I could just Google those words.  I can’t recall how it was that I ended up getting an Outward Bound catalog in the mail.  But I remember mom asking if I was interested in doing it, and we looked through the catalog.  Not being into anything that required physical strength or stamina, I picked a sailing course.  Good thing there was no physical effort needed – the mental part of this trip turned out to be more than I thought I could have handled.

One of the first things we did upon being dropped off at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound school was put up our tents.  Without directions.  I couldn’t believe they would leave four teenagers to put up a tent with no guidance or instruction.  Surprisingly, we did it.  We then had to take out everything in our suitcases and stuff it into duffel bags we were given.  We were told to leave in the suitcases books, walkmans, make-up, and watches.  Next, it was on to a ropes course.  We went forty feet up in the air to walk between the trees.  On seeing the course, I didn’t think it would be too hard.  But once I was up there looking down, all I could think was “no way!”  But this was all part of the teambuilding exercise.  So there were 29 teenagers below me screaming encouragement and support.  Maybe I got through it only to shut them up.

The next morning we were woken early to take down our tents and get in vans to drive to our starting point.  On the dock, staring at our boats, I realized I somehow missed the part in the brochure where they said we’d be living on a 30 foot cabin-less boat with 14 other people.  What had I gotten myself into?  Just that morning a model-looking waif with an English accent asked me to look up her nose to see that there were no boogers.  Really?  This is what concerns English teenagers?  Who on earth did she think would be looking up her nose?  Turns out both her parents were models.  Perhaps this is something model parents teach their children.  I also found out that English girl was on this trip as a punishment for doing drugs in school.  Actually, I discovered only half of us had signed up for this trip voluntarily.  The other half were forced into it.  If I wanted to deal with troublesome teenagers for two weeks, I could have just stayed home with my little sister.  But here I was.

Letting go of the past

This wasn’t the first time I’d moved to a town where I knew next to no one.  There was a certain thrill of being in a brand new in a place.  The idea of starting over, of letting go of the past and moving full force into an unknown future.  I’m aware that not everyone feels this way.  Some people cling to their past as if to a life raft; if they just let go they’d find they won’t drown at all – the water’s shallow enough to stand up, and they can walk into their future unencumbered.

Anyway, that’s what I did.  My life as a physical therapist was getting pushed further into my past.  In July 2000, I moved to Boston to start my year of service as an Americorps VISTA with Massachusetts Campus Compact.

I was given a furnished four room apartment in one of the dorms on the campus where I would be based.  It wasn’t as lavish as it sounds: one of the rooms was a bathroom with no shower, another was a kitchen with no stove that you could walk the length of in two steps (or one really long step).  But I loved that little place.  I took showers in a community bathroom next door to my room – me and the other 20 or so girls who lived on my floor.  I brought two hot plates into the kitchen and, though highly illegal in a college dorm room, I cooked some spectacular meals with just two burners and no oven.

Perhaps it was this experience that really got me thinking about how little we really need to be happy.  I did miss baking brownies, but an oven wasn’t imperative for a happy life.  Yes, I would have loved not to have to wear flip-flops to take a shower, but I’d been on a two week sailing trip with no showers at all, so this wasn’t really that bad.  Here I was living in a place with everything I could want within walking distance, in an apartment I didn’t have to pay for, about to start a job I was sure I would love.  Do you really  need much more than that?

I Think I’ll Go to Boston…

It took a long time to learn, but what they say is true:  Mom is usually right.  This lesson is often earned only after going completely against her advice numerous times.  On rare occasions though, a child triumphs and gets to say, “Ha!  I was right!”  It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does it’s a memorable occasion.  My move to Boston was just that.

During my senior year in college, I bowed out of the senior formal in favor of a trip to Boston with two non-senior friends.  I was an RA at the time, and my traveling partners were my Resident Director and another RA in my building.  We drove out to the Irish Embassy Youth Hostel.  At the front desk, an adorable guy with a melt-your-heart Irish accent explained that parking in Boston was a nightmare and directed me to his grandmother’s neighborhood across the river where I could park my car free of charge.  To grandmother’s neighborhood we went, taking the T back to the hostel.  Tim was woken up each morning by his Irish roommates getting up at 5Am for their construction jobs.  Christina and I tried to fall asleep each night to the beat of the music from the bar below.  During the day, we followed the Freedom Trail and eventually dubbed our walk “The Church and Bookstore Tour of Boston” because – you guessed it – we stopped in every church and bookstore we saw.  Once inside, we went in three separate directions, never deciding on a time to meet back.  Instead, when enough time had passed we’d eventually find each other and move on.

I loved that Boston was such a walkable city.  Though we were doing a touristy activity (walking the Freedom Trail) I felt like it wasn’t just tourists that we were seeing.  It felt like the people that worked in this city actually lived in it too.  I had long ago decided I’d never live in a city because my only reference point was NYC, and that city was entirely too big and messy for my tastes.  But here was a city that you could walk in a day, with plenty of green space, and friendly people.  Hmm….

My next trip to Boston was when a friend invited me to join him for his company Christmas party – a very formal occasion in a ballroom in one of the big hotels downtown.  By day I took us a National Historic Site I wanted to see (that of Frederick Law Olmsted).  By night, we were schmoozing it up and swing dancing the night away, falling into bed in our hotel room overlooking the Charles River.

It was sometime after that trip that I started to think about moving to Boston (and no, it wasn’t because of aforementioned guy).  My mother predicted that there was no way I could afford to live in a city like Boston unless I took a job as a physical therapist.  “But I don’t want to be a physical therapist!” I protested.  “Well, you’ll need someway to earn money.  What are you going to do?”  I didn’t have an answer.

But at the same time I was thinking back to an idea I had in college – that of doing a year of volunteer work.  I wanted to go international, but found that most international programs required you to commit for two years.  Having spent the last 3.5 years in a major I didn’t like made me think that a two year commitment to anything was more than I could handle.

But now I thought perhaps I’d look at doing a year of service in the US. And so I started to center my search for a year-long volunteer stint on Boston.   I followed all sorts of links and one day ended up on the web site for Massachusetts Campus Compact.  I read the job description and loved everything about it.  I would be placed on a college campus and charged with coordinating community service projects involving students in the communities around their campuses.

The funny thing about this was that a few months before I was in a Barnes and Noble paging through one of those find-work-you-love books and came across an exercise that piqued my interest.  It asked you to write down what your ideal day would look like.  I took out the notebook I had with me (I was on a research mission, so had the necessary tools at hand) and wrote away.  From the moment I woke up until the moment I sat down to dinner, I had every detail.  What was I doing for work?  I was working on a college campus meeting with students who wanted to do volunteer work.  I was helping them find places to volunteer, holding meetings with them on upcoming group projects, planning Spring Break Service trips.  In short, the job I described was the exact one I found on the Massachusetts Campus Compact web site.

By the way, I have done this exercise a couple times since then and it works spectacularly well….

So I applied and was accepted into the program as an Americorps VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America).  Here’s the catch: they could place me on any one of thirty campuses in the state of Massachusetts, so I might not be in Boston but in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  I could request where I wanted to be, but they made no promises.  I requested Boston telling them my car was on the fritz and I’d prefer a placement where I didn’t need one.  I also asked that I be placed at a religiously affiliated school.  I graduated from a Jesuit institution and couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but knew I wanted to be on a campus with some sort of religious slant.

Turns out, they had a placement at a religiously-affiliated all women’s school in Boston.  It could have been a tricky place to put someone as my boss was to be the Director of Campus Ministry and we, as volunteers with a federally funded program, had limits on what we could do that was religiously affiliated.  But everyone’s prayers were answered.  I got to work on a campus in Boston and Sr. Pat got a VISTA who had a background in doing service work at religious institutions.

The best part?  Mom said there was no way I could afford to live in Boston unless I was a physical therapist.  But in July of 2000 I found myself living happily in Boston without a paying job. How did I afford to do that?  Well, I also happened to get placed on a campus that gave me an apartment and partial board.  No rent, no utilities, no phone bill, and barely any money needed for food.  I was given a stipend each month at the poverty level which was able to cover any other expenses I had.

Some might argue this was luck.  Some might say coincidence.  I say it was me figuring out what I wanted and asking for it.  Sometimes what you want is what you get.  Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but instead get what you didn’t know you needed.  But that’s another story.

Mom now tells this story to mothers who also have children with grand ideas and seemingly no idea how they’ll accomplish them.  She says that she learned never to tell me I couldn’t do something.  Now she simply asks all sorts of questions to make sure I’ve thought of every angle.  In fact, mom no longer really gives her opinion when I propose a new idea.  And she surely never tells me it can’t be done.  She asks questions, and then tells us that we’re adults now and can make our own decisions.  Sometimes I just want her to take the pressure off and say, “Here’s what you should do.”  But she’s smarter than that.  She knows how important it is for a child to make her own decisions and live with the consequences.  It’s much better than going through life blaming it all on someone else’s advice.

The Census

A gentleman commented on my car the other day.  This happens all the time.  When you own a newer version of a car that everyone over a certain age seemed to have had at one point in their lives, they want to tell you their story.  I’ve heard a lot of VW Bug stories.

I noticed he was carrying a Census bag.  I asked about it and then mentioned that I worked on the 2000 Census.  He knitted his eyebrows together and stared at me.  “You were old enough to work during the last census?”

Turns out I was.  It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d actually do.  But when I was working as a Park Ranger in the Fall of 1999, a guy came to the ticket desk and asked if we could post the sign he was holding.  The sign advertised Census jobs and the number to call to take the test.  One hung in our back room where the seasonal employees would see it.  I’m figuring someone knew that most Park Rangers are seasonal employees and would be looking for work after their term was up (like me).  I stared at that poster as it hung in the back room.  When my term was up at the end of the year I knew I was going to Europe for a month, but hadn’t any clue what I was doing after that.  Though I didn’t really think I’d need it, I took down the number.

When I came back from Europe at the end of January, 2000, I started scouring want ads trying to find something that would spark my interest.  Nothing did.  I traveled up to Vermont where my uncle suggested I could use my clinical experience (minimal though it was) and my computer experience to get a job at a medical software company up there.  I never did apply for that job.

I spent most of February 2000 wondering how I was ever going to find that “one thing” that I’d want to do for the rest of my life.  I had not yet learned that it was possible to not have to pick one thing at all.

Getting desperate, I thought I’d take the census test.  At least it would be something to fill my time while job searching.  I aced the test and was called a couple weeks later to come in for the training.  I went through a week of learning how the government goes about counting the population of the entire country and why it’s so important.  Then I took an oath promising to protect the country “against all enemies foreign and domestic.”  This may sound odd for a census taker, but I had to take the same oath when I worked for the park service, so it didn’t phase me anymore.

At the end of the class, the instructor (who was to be our boss) asked if I would like to be his assistant instead of walking door-to-door.  He told me what it would entail, and I agreed.  So I never ended up knocking on doors asking people who had yet to turn in their census to fill it out with me.  Instead, I would travel around meeting up with people who were doing just that – my fellow classmates.  I would take all the paperwork they had completed that day, review it, and help them problem-solve any issues they were having.  Then, I’d go meet with my boss and the other assistant at a local diner where we would gather all our paperwork and bring to him any problems we couldn’t resolve.

This was also the first and only job where I’ve ever had to fire people.  If employees were not following procedures or seemed to be claiming more hours than their work showed, it was my job to ask them to account for their time and warn them of what we were seeing.  If they didn’t shape up, I was the one to tell they we were letting them go – and then fill out a bunch of forms explaining why.

At one point in my census term a trainer was unable to do one of his scheduled trainings.  I can’t recall how it was that I came to get that job, but one week I found myself conducting the training that I myself had been through just a couple months earlier.  I was a mere 23 and most if not all of my students were older than me, but that didn’t really bother me.  I knew I knew what I was talking about and felt confident in my ability to speak in front of groups.  I had been a tour guide on my college campus, and then as a park ranger – I knew I loved to train and teach but didn’t yet realize what a gift that truly was.

The census has a bunch of different phases.  Official “Census Day” was April 1, 2000.  Prior to that day, we were in a “mapping” phase, where we would go around looking at the maps the previous phase had come up with and working on editing them – drawing in new developments, new houses – making sure every dwelling was on our map.  After April 1, anyone who hadn’t yet turned in their census got a knock on their door.

I can’t recall how many phases of which I was part.  I left my census job at the end of June – about to do something my mother had a few months earlier tried to convince me would never happen.  I was about to prove her wrong.