I’ve Had an Accident. So May You All.

I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Listen 8:09

Never have I resonated with this more than now. (OK, well, maybe with the exception of middle school because that was a complete nightmare of no one knowing anyone.)

I left a great job teaching English literature at a school where I was loved and admired and known by students and teachers.

I moved to another country where I barely know how to communicate with other humans.

I am now a stay-at-home Zoom Mom.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

So I’m at home a lot these days. And Quito has just mandated stay-at-home orders for the next four weekends. I am not in a classroom, I am not teaching, I am not making lesson plans, I am not pestering my students about what books they’re reading. As a teacher, I am not known here. At all. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. But while I am sad that people here don’t know me and the skills I bring to the table, something exciting is happening.

I am learning new things. New doors are opening for me. Dormant skills are bubbling to the surface. Dare I say, I am getting to know myself better. And while it’s great to feel known by others, it’s also great to know yourself.

It’s funny that we float through life just assuming we know all there is to know about ourselves. We are the only ones with full access to our own brains, after all. But it’s scary how easy it is to simply flip off the switch, darkening most of that mass inside our skulls.

I have to stop and wonder what we’re missing here. If we don’t know ourselves, how are others supposed to know us? And don’t we desperately want to be known by others?

It took a seismic shift of events for me to realize that there’s more to me than being a teacher. And I bet it’s similar for most humans. Maybe for you.

I learned something new this week about the word “accident,” all because of my 9-year-old’s Spanish project that asked him to write about “coastal accidents.” My son and I were both very confused — coastal accidents, like shipwrecks? Natural disasters on the coast? We were struggling. Finally, after a desperate email to the teacher, we realized that the word “accident” refers to how various landforms come into being. A bay, for example, is formed through the erosion of rocks. In the Spanish language, this is considered an “accident” because erosion is not intentional. But go ahead and Google “Tortuga Bay, Ecuador,” and you tell me if that looks like an “accident.” I’d visit that accident any day of the week.

What a mindset shift to think of accidents creating beauty. And though leaving the teaching profession, moving to a new country, and becoming a Zoom Mom weren’t accidents, per se, they certainly were in line with a seismic shift of events. And let’s remember that during seismic shifts when tectonic plates collide (accident!), beautiful mountains are formed.

I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem about a man who floats through life, doing things and saying things and being things. He is “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular,” and even a “saint” — descriptors we’d probably appreciate being said about us. His life is smooth — no accidents. But when he dies, we realize — with horror — that no one even knew his name. No one even knew if he was free. Or if he was happy.

Go ahead and read the poem. Take your time.

The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378

This Marble Monument

Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

What a truly devastating poem. To go through your entire life, doing and saying and being all the things, only to die, in the abyss of obscurity.

It’s a reminder to us to live. To live in a way that we are known to others and to ourselves. And for that to happen we might have to endure some accidents. We might have to induce some accidents.

Leaving my profession, moving to another country, becoming a Zoom Mom — these things propelled me to dig deeper into what I have to offer to my community, to my family, to myself.

And digging deeper, I have discovered within myself something very exciting — something that has been waiting patiently for me.

That something? It’s a book. A book that I will write.

(I’m terrified. Maybe terrified like those tectonic plates when they were inching closer to each other, knowing they were going to collide and there was nothing they could do about it.)

When people look at my life after I die, I want them to see beautiful bays and mountains, knowing the erosion and shifting of tectonic plates it took to get like that.

Because sometimes it takes an accident to create something beautiful. And to be known.

Unlock the House. And Get Out.

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”

Listen 8:15

Living locked — anywhere — sounds pretty icky to me. Say those two words together: live locked. Does that alliteration just punch you right in the tooth? It does for me. It’s definitive. It’s harsh. It’s like when you slam your locker door shut only to realize you don’t have the combination for the lock.

In junior high, I wanted to be locked in the orderly house of coolness, popularity, and rum raisin lipstick . . . and sunflower everything and baggy pants and white eyeliner and baby tee’s from Hot Topic and chunky-heeled jellies. Ah, the glorious mid-nineties — what a time to be alive! And I was living in California, so the word “like” was basically, like, a topic of conversation.

But my problem was that I didn’t have friends. Sad day, I know. (Hey, Parents! Wanna know how to really mess with your kids? Make them change schools right when they are at their lowest point in self esteem, self reliance, and confidence.) So being new and without friends, I — very logically — thought, Why not really go for it and get in with the popular clique?

‘Twas a great plan. A great plan that absolutely flopped. (Think of a fish out of water, eyes glazed in horror and locked with yours, gasping for breath, flopping its wet scales against the flat grey rock. A bit of an understatement to my situation, but appropriate nonetheless.)

You don’t just waltz into the popular group, the word like dancing on your lip-glossed lips. No. Those popular girls — they are exclusive, lemme tell you, and they decided pretty early on that the frizzy-haired, caterpillar-eyebrowed Plain-Jen just wasn’t gonna cut it. I even wore oversized overalls with a baby tee and men’s boxers peeking out. Not. Good. Enough.

So I would wander around campus, alone, wondering how to kill time during the soul-crushing breaks of brunch and lunch. One of my go-to tactics was to casually sidle up to my locker and pretend to busy myself getting ready for my next classes. Even better, to soak up juuust a few more seconds, I’d pretend to get my combination wrong opening my locker. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best strategy, seeing as how it killed maybe 20 seconds and made me look like a total idiot.

The funny thing here is that being a 13-year-old, I really thought that people were watching and judging me at all times. I wish I could go back to that girl, put my hands on her bony shoulders, give her a good shake, and tell her, People don’t really care about you that much! Nobody is watching you “struggle” with your locker. Just get your stuff and go find some decent humans to hang out with! Sheesh!

You’ll be happy to know that I did eventually find some decent humans, but only after a group of super-cool kids paid cash to Danny to try to “pants” me in the middle of the quad. It was all very anti-climactic, though, because I was wearing jeans, and when he got down and tugged, nothing happened. (Hey, Danny, here’s a pro-pantsing-tip: maybe pants someone when they’re in PE, wearing their stretchy-waisted sweat pants. Might work a little better.)

At the end of the nightmarishly long two years of junior high, I came out of it. I’d like to say I came out as a better person, but in truth, I came out as just a solidly average person. I still had lessons to learn in high school and a long way to go in getting to be a decent person myself.

I wanted so badly to be locked in with the popular crowd. I longed to follow their rules — their reasons and proofs. I held onto so much angst for such a stinking, rotten prize.

But struggling with my locker and struggling with my angst helped me to become the person I am today. And the person I am today would hop up onto that soapbox with Oliver and preach to the world that You can refuse to be locked up in the orderly house of reason and proofs!

Though it’s not about rum raisin lipstick and jellies and popularity anymore (maybe for some of you, it still is — yikes), we humans do have the tendency to lock ourselves into that orderly house. We like reasons and proofs and walls and locks and black and white and answers.

But wow has this past year been anything but an orderly house. For me, that meant an international move and the chaos that comes with it — all in the midst of a pandemic. But it was scary how quickly I settled into this new life and started allowing myself to be locked into the orderly house of Zoom and schedules and laundry and dishes and sweeping and cooking. Could I have gotten out of the apartment more, working on my Spanish in real-life situations with real people, exploring my city without waiting for Steve to be finished with school? Yes. But it was so easy to stay inside, telling myself I needed to keep my apartment orderly, telling myself I had to be with my kids during every minute of every Zoom call just in case they needed me even though Steve was in the house, too. I’m going to try to unlock a little bit.

Well this past weekend, we decided to unlock ourselves from our apartment and go stay at an Airbnb in Mindo, a cloud forest in Ecuador. It was a windy, nauseating 2-hour drive (vomit definitely happened — both ways), but when we finally made it, it was as if we had stepped into heaven, except with humidity and bugs and mosquitos. In reality, it was a wooden cabin nestled in the middle of lush tropical gardens and an organic farm. Hummingbirds, toucans, and lots of other birds I don’t know the names of twittered and sang us through the weekend. We walked, we read, we puzzled, we listened to the birds (Oliver would be proud), and we star-gazed. It was lovely.

I don’t think it was exactly what Mary Oliver was talking about in her poem, but, man, it worked for us. It was time to get out of the apartment.

Maybe for you it’s also about getting out of the house. But maybe it’s about refusing to accept the status quo. Maybe it’s about being the lone voice in opposition, being vulnerable. Maybe it’s about being OK with not having the answers. And maybe, it’s about refusing to live locked.

The world I live in and believe in
is bigger than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”

One of our activities was hiking to La Reina waterfall. Here, we are trying not to slip on the rocks to get a close-up view of the falls. We were most definitely not inside the orderly house at this moment.
One of the views from the property.
On the property.
On the property.
On the property.
My boys had a blast running around, discovering trails through bamboo, forging into hideouts in the middle of banana trees, and catching sight of the guatusa, a rodent similar to the capybara.