Category Archives: philosophical

In case you were wondering, I am a feminist

I really love the Internet because it has so many things to offer. It’s where I go to read about current events, and find great new music and books, and search for crochet patterns, and look up tasty recipes, and learn new photographic techniques, and browse thought-provoking essays, and just generally lose myself in an amazing array of information. I have had a great deal of happiness from the Internet. But lately it has shown me some very sad things.

There’s been this:

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…and this:

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One of my favourite bloggers, The Everywhereist, recently wrote about a horrific, sexist experience she had while traveling, and earlier this week writer Sara Benincasa penned an inspirational essay after being asked by a male fan why she’d gained weight. Benincasa’s comments prompted comedian Eden Dranger to follow up with some remarks about her own appearance, and her blog post has now also gone viral.

As you might expect, all of the above have resulted in a fair amount of trolling–itself the focus of some recent online attention after Joel Stein wrote a thought-provoking piece about it in TIME. More importantly, the things I mentioned above–which, you’ll notice all involve women–have opened the floodgates to an outpouring of support and love and understanding and acceptance. Much of this involves some form of “I know how you feel because I have been there too”, which I find terribly disturbing but not at all surprising, as I myself happen to be a woman and, yes, have been there too.

A friend of mine shared something earlier that nicely summarises some of the challenges associated with being a modern lady:

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This cartoon focuses on appearances, but you could easily make another one of these that has to do with being career-focused/sporty/forthright/sexual/independent/childless/and so on versus whatever opposites of those traits women are “supposed” to be according to those who judge them. Basically, it is absolutely impossible to be a woman and do it right. This is not to say that it isn’t sometimes difficult to be a man and adhere to all the often-equally-imprisoning standards that society decides are appropriate for males. The problem is that women seem to be policed to a much greater extent, and hounded when they step out of line and find success and enjoyment in simply being themselves (see first photo above).

Sometimes the hounding becomes physical, and/or is targeted at the physical vessels in which we live, and to me that is a barrier that should never be breached. There are few things in this world that are well and truly mine, and even fewer things that I can control. But my body and all that it contains and makes possible–my brain, my personality, my emotions, my womb–is my domain. As far as I am concerned, it is not ever permissible or acceptable for:

  • someone to treat me unfairly or unequally because of the shape that my external shell happens to take
  • someone to make assumptions about me because my body looks the way that it does
  • someone to decide what is right or wrong for me based on the way that I look, or what is the right or wrong way for me to look
  • someone to do something to my body that is against my wishes

Those things should never happen, and yet they all have, on numerous occasions, just as they have for countless other women (and human beings in general–again, I’m focusing on ladies here because I am one and know that reality best, but I’m well aware that a range of people have been, or are, in the same boat at some point or another; it’s equally egregious no matter who suffers these indignities).

I will give you an example from my own life. This is a photo taken of me back in my high school days by a male friend of mine:

Photo Disk 2 342
(uploading photos of myself to the internet before it was cool)

He was a computer nerd and was showing me his brand new web cam, which was pretty snazzy technology at the time. I was wearing a bikini because we’d been in his hot tub with some other friends, who were also there, as were his parents, and the entire situation was completely innocent. The photo wound up online with some other photos of all of us having fun in the summer holidays, as one does when one is a teenager.

The image sat around in cyberspace doing nothing for a good year or two until someone felt the need to point it out to my mom and ask whether she wasn’t scandalised by it. She wasn’t, of course, because she is not a Puritan and knows that a) the human body isn’t anything to be afraid of, and b) you judge someone’s character by means other than photos posted online. However, having to consider this question gave her pause, just as it gave me pause when she asked me about it. For just a moment, it made me feel guilty, and dirty, as though I’d done something wrong. I was ashamed of…of…of what, exactly? Having a body? Wearing a relatively chaste two-piece bathing suit in front of others? Being comfortable enough in my own skin to allow someone to take a photo of me? Being uninhibited enough to allow that photo to be posted online without thinking anything of it?

I will give you another example. Here is a photo that I posted on my first ever personal webpage–which, incidentally, I coded from scratch because sometimes girls are computer nerds too:

Photo Disk 2 340
(i never anticipated this pose might be considered suggestive or sexy in any way)

It’s another completely innocent shot, taken (I think by my grandmother) during a moment of relaxation before heading out on a day trip somewhere. I used this image in my autobiography section, which included a link to my e-mail address in case anyone wanted to get in touch. For the longest time, I only ever received messages from my high school friends, until one day when there was a delightful missive from a (male) stranger who described all the things he’d like to do to me on that bed. My autobiography clearly indicated that I was in high school, and was underage, but of course that was of no concern to my troll, because these things never are–as Emma Watson could tell you.

I was surprised, but not hugely, because I had long since learned the rules of engagement. I was only eleven years old when I first–knowingly–received sexual attention from a man; he turned to his friend and complimented my ass in a stage whisper while both men grinned lasciviously, and threateningly, at me and the friend I was with. I was scared and, again, ashamed, feeling that somehow this encounter was one that I had brought on myself…by innocently feeding ducks at the zoo. Even at that young age, I had already absorbed this horrible notion we have in our society that the victim–particularly the female victim–is always at least partly responsible for whatever comes her way.

High school was even more educational. There was the time when (male) runners on the track team took bets about whether or not my prom date could seduce me into giving up my virginity on prom night (nope). Then there was the time I refused to perform sexual acts on a boyfriend and so he started a variety of–untrue–pornographic rumours about me. There was endless catcalling when I was out on training runs for cross country. (On an unrelated note, after receiving a call of complaint from some prude, our coach decided it was inappropriate for girls to run in sports bra tops, but totally fine for guys to run shirtless.) It was during high school that I received my first (of many) un-asked-for gropes, as well as my first full-on physical assault–pinned against a wall while someone tried to yank my clothes off.

That last one scared the bejesus out of me and made me fully aware of the perils of being smaller and weaker than approximately half the population. That’s when I enrolled in weightlifting classes with the goal of making life harder for the next–and I knew there would be a next–jerk who tried to take more than I wanted to give. I had no grand illusions that a little extra muscle would suddenly make me rape-proof, but I hoped, at least, that it would give me a fighting chance. What it actually gave me was greater athletic prowess, which was an unexpected but pleasant side effect. This may seem like a tangent, but bear with me–I promise I’ll eventually weave all these strands together into a glorious feminist tapestry.

indoor track
(mistress of the indoor track)

I didn’t know it at the time, but being good at sports was something that would come to enrich my life and keep me sane. There is nothing better than feeling your own strength, successfully guiding your muscles through complex coordinated movements, striving to push harder and achieve more and then succeeding through the force of your own willpower and stamina. My chosen arenas–the cross country course, the track, and the field–are particularly wonderful for this, because really it all just boils down to you, the athlete, and what you can do with your body. This eventually made me happy with, and proud of, my physique, but it has been a long, slow journey.

By the time I joined the running teams in college, I’d become acutely aware that my body was not like other bodies. I wasn’t shaped like the lithe long-distance runners and high-jumpers or the powerful throwers or the wiry sprinters. If you drew a Venn diagram of these three groups–the folks I spent most of my time around and knew best–I was somewhere in the overlap of all of them. This is why I eventually found a home in the heptathlon, but until I did, I just felt confused and dissatisfied. I was bigger and denser than nearly all the other runners, who seemingly subsisted solely on salads and carrot sticks and the white parts of hard-boiled eggs. Clothes didn’t fit me; my waist and my hips and my thighs were all the wrong dimensions for each other because of my musculature. I had bulgy biceps and prominent veins. When I tried on outfits in shops, things didn’t hang on me the way they hung on the mannequins. I felt like an unattractive freak.

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(me at peak muscle, weighing in at around 160 lbs)

None of this was helped by my boobs. I can’t forget about those, because the world won’t let me. I remember standing up in high school once to give a presentation in front of the class, and one of the guys called out, “The turkey’s ready to come out of the oven!”–referring, of course, to my nipples, because I was cold and they were mimicking a thermometer that pops up when a roast is done. Another witty phrase I heard all the time was, “Your headlights are on!”

Those were the days when my breasts were only just getting started. They kept growing and growing throughout college, to the point that I couldn’t run unless I was wearing two sports bras, and I kept having to get rid of perfectly ordinary tops that suddenly began to look pornographic. It was a major pain–sometimes literally–and brought a lot of attention that I really didn’t want. Staring. Commenting. “Accidental” brushing up against. One of my (male) coaches talked about my boobs once, and also the “junk in my trunk”, and also my menstrual cycle, as though any of these things was a topic that had any bearing on my abilities (because, unlike Fu Yuanhui, I am not and was never going to be an Olympic athlete, so analysing the potential impacts of these things on my performance–especially given the tone and terminology my coach used–was wholly unnecessary).

His remarks felt horribly inappropriate, but he’s hardly the only one to feel perfectly natural talking about my assets. Men, women, friends, strangers; over the years, many have commented on the size and shape of my bits and pieces, as though I were an animal up for auction, as though it were somehow relevant. Sometimes people even thought they were complimenting me, but, collectively, they were making me feel that I was nothing but a piece of meat.

javelin
(a bendy piece of meat)

So there I was, wanting desperately to just be an interesting, multilayered person who was valued for her intellect and talent and generosity of spirit, someone who was comfortable being herself. Instead I felt horrifically awkward in my own body and frightened of the ways in which that body made people interact with me. It didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, what I wore or didn’t wear, what personality and achievements and actions went along with that body. It all seemed so fraught and impossible.

Sitting here over a decade later, I’d like to say that I have learned that, in fact, it is not fraught and impossible, but I haven’t. It actually is fraught and impossible. That’s why all this recent stuff online has disturbed me and sent me off on many a meandering contemplation. I’ve worked hard to find myself a relatively safe space and am lucky to be surrounded by relatively safe people; as a result, I’ve been able to minimise the extent to which I suffer from the sorts of events and situations that plagued me in the past. Do I still get catcalled, and groped, and followed in the street, and talked down to, and ogled? Of course; it just happens less. I think this has allowed me to feel that we were making progress as a society, but I suspect it just means that I’ve been insulated.

Being a woman–especially, god forbid, a woman of colour or a lesbian woman or a trans woman or an ambiguously gendered woman or whatever extra twist you want to add–is complicated and difficult. We can achieve the same things as men, or even do better than men, and still not receive the same level of respect and attention:

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We can engage in activities associated with intellect, diplomacy, business acumen, eloquence, and other cerebral skills, but still our looks are dragged into the equation as though they impact the ability of our brains to function:

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(note: i in no way support carly fiorina, but i also don’t think her appearance would have impacted her ability to function as president)

Even if we are physically beautiful and graceful and poised and elegant, it’s often deemed insufficient or inappropriate somehow–often relative to some other feminine ideal held up on high:

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(seriously, WTF is this and why does it exist in the 21st century?)

In 30 seconds of poking around online, you will find memes that will make you want to leave the Internet forever, and they’re all about looks–women who are too fat or too skinny, with eyebrows too thin and drawn on, wearing clothes not appropriate for the body type, engaged in activities inappropriate to body type, and so on, and so on. Why? What bearing do those things have on a person’s worth or legitimacy? And why are there so many more of them for women than for men?

One last personal anecdote. When I was a senior in high school, I went to a photo studio to get my senior portrait taken. I was asked to bring a few different outfits and a couple props. Here are two of the resulting photos:

senior photo 1

senior photo 2

While taking the first of those photos, the photographer said that I looked nice in that outfit and that he hoped I was enjoying it as much as I could then, since I wouldn’t be able to wear those trousers when I was older–the implication being that I’d pop out a few kids, since that’s what women do, and get pudgy around the middle, since that’s also what women do. You can tell from the expression on my face that I was not loving the conversation. At no point during the second photo did we discuss the fact that I brought the guitar because I play it–just as I play several other instruments, sing, write music, and perform onstage. I guess those talents are irrelevant next to my ability to show off a decent figure.

I wish that I could wind up this essay with a resolution of some sort, but it’s not that kind of a piece; I don’t have the answer to this problem. Well, actually, I do–we should all be kind and treat each other with respect and realise that all humans are equal regardless of our various cultural and physical differences–but I don’t know how to make that happen. Humans have been struggling with these issues since the dawn of civilisation and I could probably write a whole book on the biological underpinnings of this but it’s outside the scope of this piece. I would like to say that we’ve made progress on these issues since, say, my mother’s era, but women still don’t earn as much as men even when we do the same jobs, we’re still fighting for rights to make decisions for our own uteri–not to mention dying because men are preventing access to appropriate facilities–and we’ve got armed policemen telling us what we can and can’t wear, as if they know what’s best for us.

So why have I written over 3,000 words just to reiterate that, yes, women have it rough? For two reasons, really. The first is that I’m sick of this debate over what feminism is and whether it’s needed and who is/isn’t a feminist and whether “feminism” isn’t just a nice way of saying “man-hating”. If only we sank as much time and effort into issues that impact women and their bodies–such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, arranged marriages of children, access to birth control, maternity leave, and, while we’re at it, legitimate prison sentences for people who attack women.

The second reason, which is more important, is that there is power in sharing. It’s not until you hear someone else’s opinions and experiences that you realise you aren’t alone. I have wasted time envying friends for being taller or thinner, having prettier hair or a better complexion, rocking a six-pack or a J-Lo booty, and meanwhile they wished  for my curves or my muscles or my earlobes or my who-knows-what. While I was obsessing over my own pet insecurities and thinking that everyone else was totally perfect, they were doing the same thing, and none of us realised that actually we all have something to be proud of because we are all gorgeous in our own ways–not just how we look, but, more importantly, how we act, what we achieve, and who we are fundamentally.

As the responses to the Everywhereist and Sara Benincasa posts show, we not only deal with the same sorts of raging insecurities about our bodies, but also the same susceptibility to attack–both physical and emotional. We ladies are resilient creatures, leaving our homes and navigating the world each day knowing what is lurking out there. We harden ourselves to the comments and the threats and the actions, and we learn rules about where we can go and when we can go there and how we can act so as to minimise the likelihood of unwanted attention or attack.

We become so used to these protective habits that it’s all too easy to forget how insane it is that we should have to cultivate these behaviours in the first place. You think it’s just you, or just that one guy, or just your town, or just your country, or just your culture, but pretty soon you hear enough of these stories from all sorts of women in all sorts of places, and suddenly you realise: This is a real thing. This thing is a problem, and it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed now.

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(surround yourself with good people who inspire you to do good things)

The amazing thing about the Internet is that even though it’s highlighted some real ugliness this week, it’s also underscored the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of other people who agree that we can be better. These people are willing to provide support and encouragement and assistance in order to tackle this problem. Many of these crusaders are men, who can benefit in a variety of ways when women are treated more equally. (Incidentally, gender equality also improves education and the economy and even the environment, and leads to social changes that improve life for other disadvantaged groups as well. Yay!)

None of us knows how many days we’ve got on this earth or which one will be our last. Why waste precious time agonising over unimportant details and being cruel to others? Let us all stop being so hard on ourselves and on each other. Let us stop worrying about what we look like, and pay more attention to what we achieve and who we are. Let us look for and praise the incredible kindnesses that humans are capable of in our best moments, and then engage in more of those. Let us all be the sort of people that we would like to encounter in our own lives. It’s a miracle, really, that each of us exists at all, and that those of us who exist now happen to be doing so at the same time in the same place. Why not celebrate that miracle with a bit of kindness for our fellow man–or woman?

Resolution

I started 2015 by waxing lyrically on how each day, each hour, each moment offers an opportunity to start again. I was so glad to leave 2014 behind and begin to craft a new year that was happier and easier than the previous one.

Ha ha ha ha ha. *sigh*

Let’s revisit my resolutions and see how I got on, shall we?

1.  Complete two crochet projects by the end of 2015. NOPE! I did start a project, but I certainly didn’t finish it. I’m not too far off, and I have been thinking about it a lot lately, so maybe I’ll get around to that soon… *

The unfinished project
The unfinished project

2. Update my science blog at least once a week. FAIL! I wrote a couple of posts, which I managed purely by finding topics that I could write about as part of my full-time job and then co-opt for the blog. Despite my inability to make much progress with Anthrophysis, I have managed to write several articles for publication in popular science magazines, contribute to an academic book chapter, and review a book for an academic journal. I think I should get points for those.

3. Practice whistling at least twice a week (and learn some new songs!). NOT EVEN CLOSE. Since moving into my new flat, I’ve only whistled once, though not for lack of wanting or having time. The walls here are thin and I hate the idea of my neighbors listening in, so I am reluctant to pick up my instruments. Considering that my hall mates routinely wake me up at 4am by throwing drunken tantrums in the hall, I really shouldn’t be so timid.

4. Continue making one-second-a-day videos to document my life. NO. This project lasted all of one week before I decided that, actually, I was satisfied with my 2014 effort, and didn’t really need to repeat that for 2015.  Making the videos is interesting and fun on days that are full of unusual activity, but it’s a real chore on quieter days or when you’re unwell. I know the whole point is to gather together clips that show how every day is valuable and stimulating in its own way, but I just couldn’t face another 365 days of worrying about this.

5. Take a selfie every day (as done by Justin Peters–for philosophical reasons and not because I’m excessively vain!). NOPE! I started off pretty well and was fairly consistent for the first half of the year, but then my zest for this project slowly faded away because I had more important things to think about. In retrospect, I can see where it would have been interesting to document the whole cancer thing via the selfie project–especially the hair loss–but I opted instead to take photos of key moments rather than every single moment.

Key moment: Caitlin's first turban
Key moment: Caitlin’s first turban

6. Add variety to my workout schedule by doing more Pilates and tai chi. KIND OF. My new flat is tiny and doesn’t leave much room for these sorts of exercises. However, I have managed to squeeze some in, and I’ve been particularly enjoying the 30-day challenges posted on Blogilates.

7. Write e-mails to my family more often. MAYBE. I don’t know that I write the sort of chatty, newsy e-mails I was envisioning when I set this resolution, but I think I probably do send more total messages as a result of firing off a larger number of quick, short updates. I still need to work on writing my grandparents more, though.

8. Go birding more often. NOT REALLY. However, I have had some very enjoyable bird sightings over the course of the year, so perhaps I can go for a quality over quantity argument here. I had some great woodpecker and jay encounters while walking between the train station and hospital in Truro; I have spotted grebes and tufted ducks at Swanpool, instead of the standard fare of mallards, coots, and gulls; and I had a delightful time watching acrobatic long-tailed tits during a lunch break on campus. There were also some kinglets and bullfinches sprinkled across the year, and those species are always a treat.

9. Try a new baked goods recipe at least once a month, and take the fruits of my labor (assuming they are edible!) to work to share with my colleagues. NOPE! I think I managed to do this only once–when I made an apple cake that I didn’t want to eat all by myself. That said, it’s not like I baked and didn’t share; it’s more that I didn’t bake at all. I have, however, continued to cook, so I think I still get some culinary points there.

10. Read at least 30 books. YES! Hallelujah, I actually achieved one of my goals! In fact, according to Goodreads, I read 42 books. Go, me!

My 2015 reads
My 2015 reads

Out of ten resolutions, then, I only managed to fully and definitely accomplish one; if you give me credit for partial accomplishment of a couple others, then perhaps–if you are feeling generous–you’ll allow me to score myself 2/10. That’s still a pretty abysmal record, and a failing grade.

But you know what? I don’t feel like I failed, and that’s because, for everything here that I didn’t do, there was something else that I did do. I went to Key West and Portugal for the first time. I saw my book Flamingo published. I was nominated for three professional services recognition awards at work. I put together a puzzle for the first time in a decade. I shaved my head. I rented a car and drove myself all over Cornwall. I chatted with friends I haven’t been in touch with in years.

I was active–I just wasn’t active in quite the way I envisioned I would be. This may sound a bit like post hoc justification of what I did and didn’t do in 2015, but when I look back now on my resolutions, I can’t help but think that I might have had a less interesting, and perhaps even less fulfilling, year if I had doggedly pursued all those goals I set in January. They involve a lot of regimentation, a lot of box-ticking, a lot of work. Yes, they also involve things I love, but would I continue to love them after forcing them on myself in such a strict way? Perhaps not. I don’t know that I want to perform the experiment and find out.

I also don’t like the idea of limiting myself. For every task that you chisel into the stone of your yearly calendar, there are other activities that you may be rendering impossible by pre-emptively robbing yourself of the time and energy needed to pursue alternatives that serendipitously fall into your lap. You limit spontaneity and whimsy. Could resolutions, therefore, actually prevent you from enjoying life more fully and growing as a person? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive?

Spontaneity: visiting with an unexpected guest
Spontaneity: visiting with an unexpected guest

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know this: In 2015, for the first time since I was a little girl, I allowed myself to have whole days that weren’t planned in advance, on which I sometimes achieved nothing tangible at all–and I liked it. I enjoyed letting go and being less rigid and just…going with the flow. I enjoyed living.

I am, of course, only one person, and what works for me may not work for the rest of humanity. However, I can tell you from experience that you can get an awful lot out of your time even without a massive to-do list perpetually hanging over your head and reminding you of what you should do and how you should do it. Whatever you decide is right for your personality and circumstances, just go for it. Now. Don’t waste time. Every second is precious, and each one is an opportunity. Seize it.

*Update: As of 6:45pm, the crochet project is finished! Also, I remembered that I crocheted a small gift at Christmastime. So, actually…I think I did pretty well here. Woo-hoo!

Growing Up in Athens

In my very first memory, I am sitting in a child seat on the back of one of my parents’ bicycles, reaching out my hand to feel the warm wind pushing between my starfished fingers. It is spring or summer, and the sun is high and golden in the clear blue sky above. The location is Connett Road, the site of my parents’ first home and later the place where I would complete my last two years of enrollment at The Plains Elementary School.

I did not know it then as a toddler, but Connett Road would later come to have a greater significance in my life. After my parents relocated to the southern edge of town, they made that thoroughfare the boundary of the part of town I was allowed to traverse unattended; I could walk or ride my bike to the end of any of the side streets that provided access to Connett, but I was not allowed to cross that larger, more heavily trafficked road myself—not until I was older, anyway, and commuted to and from school each day. I still remember how my hands were difficult to uncurl from their handlebar-gripping position after cold-morning bike rides. I can also vividly recall the rainy days when I would make myself as small as possible under my umbrella, shrinking my world down to the round patch of dryness under its canopy. The inclement weather didn’t bother me, though; I always liked the fresh air and the freedom of moving from place to place under my own power.

Railroad crossing at Eclipse Company Town

It’s probably not surprising, then, that in high school I routinely found myself back on Connett Road—but on foot this time, training for cross country and track races. A visit to Connett usually meant a longer run; on rare occasions we might head up the torturously windy Lemaster hill, or do repeats on the seemingly endless driveway where Lemaster and Connett met. It was more common for us to take a right and head towards Poston Road; in my final years at Athens High, our destination was the then-new Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, which finally offered us a scenic and car-free place to stretch our legs.

By the time I moved away from Athens at the age of 18, I knew every inch of that trail between Athens and Nelsonville; I had covered it not only on foot but also on my beautiful green Giant Iguana bike, built from scratch for me by friends at Cycle Path, and purchased with money saved up from, among other jobs, cleaning dorm rooms at Ohio University. It was worth the effort, though, because I was able to explore both The Plains and Athens like never before. Somewhere near Mile 14 is where I encountered my very first indigo bunting; I immediately turned around and rushed home to consult guidebooks on the identity of this impossibly blue bird.

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Wildlife was, perhaps inevitably, an integral part of my outdoor experience in Athens: The Appalachian foothills are teeming with beautiful and fascinating species, though, ironically, I did not fully appreciate this until I left the area and learned more about its biodiversity during university classes and summer jobs in neighboring Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. Even before that education, though, I knew enough to expect belted kingfishers near the Richland Avenue bridge, great blue herons in the reeds along the Hocking, and American kestrels hunting the fields along Route 50. I knew that box turtles hid in the damp, shady areas of our yard, and that the best place to find garter snakes was out behind my mother’s herb garden. I also learned early that it was a bad idea to walk barefoot underneath the sweet gum and chestnut trees.

There were other unpleasant encounters to be had farther from home, out at Dow Lake. Although I loved visiting Strouds Run on a hot day in order to have a picnic and a refreshing swim, I was very uneasy about water that wasn’t entirely transparent; I have never liked the feeling of unseen fish bumping into my thighs, or slimy aquatic weeds wrapping themselves around my ankles. My best friend and I once dared each other to swim out to the buoys, but turned back in a panic when we reached the thick algal growth floating a few feet from our destination. I was much happier renting a canoe or a kayak and staying well away from the greenery in the water.

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Even better was visiting the lake at night (not technically permissible, by the way), lying on the shore and looking up at the mind-boggling multitude of stars over my head. While watching for meteors one night, a friend and I were awed by the sight of an owl gliding silently overhead, its black silhouette just a shade or two darker than the sky above. If I concentrate very hard, I can vaguely remember when my parents took me to a hill overlooking the shores of the Hocking River in 1986 so that I could look through a chunky portable telescope and catch sight of Halley’s Comet—an astronomical phenomenon that I will be able to see again in 2061, if I am lucky. Years later, with classmates from an Ohio University astronomy class, I drove out to the ridges west of town and was gobsmacked by my first glimpse of Saturn and its rings.

For me, however, the best ridges were The Ridges, which I first visited sometime in the mid-1980’s, when my father drove me over one day after school for a surprise outing. At the time, I had no sense of where or what the ridges were; although I had spent plenty of time at the Dairy Barn and had always been aware of the imposing Athens Lunatic Asylum up on the hill, I was too young to fully realize that the hills we were walking connected these two points. My dad and I hiked all the way to the top of Radar Hill, which, at that time, still featured structures indicating the origins of its name. I know now that our trek wasn’t that long, but it seemed like an epic journey at the time, and quite an adventure—a previously unknown wilderness bathed in warm autumn light, with no other people in sight.

CRK on Radar Hill

I didn’t visit The Ridges again for about 5 years, when it was the destination of one of the first training runs I participated in after joining the Athens Middle School cross country team. When I first began running, I couldn’t even make it from Peden Stadium to the old asylum without stopping for a breather; soon I was able to get to the trailhead, then to the first old water tank, then the second, and finally the top of the hill. I was so proud of that achievement, and it made the view all the more beautiful.

Although my teammates weren’t overly fond of the inclines and rough footing up at The Ridges, I went back often. It was a good place to see red-tailed hawks, vultures, and eastern bluebirds—the last of which being species that I would end up studying as a graduate student. On the final run that I did in Athens before heading off to college, I found my way to the top of Radar Hill at dusk and stood looking out at the rows of hills stretching off into the distance. The nearest were dark, almost black; the others were increasingly paler shades of blue, with the furthest and lightest buried in a layer of summer haze. I suspected it was a sight I would not easily forget, and to this day I can conjure memories of it as though I had only just visited the previous evening.

The Ridges from Radar Hill

Blue, however, is not the color I most associate with Athens. Despite all the copper autumns and white winters I weathered during my time there, it’s the verdant springs and summers that stand out strongest in my mind: the soft grass on the amphitheater outside Scripps Hall; the inviting shade of the College Green on a sweltering summer’s day; the banks of the Hocking River and the heads of the male mallards swimming in the river itself; the trees arching over the bikeway to form a tunnel between the access points at Currier Street in Athens and the Eclipse Company Town in The Plains. When these visions spring to mind, I can almost smell the intoxicating scent of honeysuckle and hear the rhythmic buzz of cicadas.

Hocking River from bike path

I now find myself living not only in a different country, but also on a different continent; a trip home requires a 5-hour train ride, 10 hours of airplane time, and another hour or so of driving. It’s a long way. I live in an undeniably beautiful place, but the aesthetics are very different. This is a seaside town filled with granite houses whose moss- and lichen-covered roofs provide perches for endlessly braying gulls; twice a day the sulfurous smell of coastal mud permeates the air as the tides recede, and the maritime winds set ships’ rigging clanging before seeking out the cracks around our doors and windows. There are no cheerful red Athens bricks underfoot, no Carolina wrens nesting in the flowerpot by the door, or jewel-tone hummingbirds buzzing in to sip sugar-water from the feeder in the window, or wild green woodlands beckoning for exploration. I’ve been here long enough that it has begun to feel like home—yet, at the same time, spending 17 years away from Athens hasn’t removed the feeling that that little part of Ohio is also home. Maybe it always will be, no matter where I actually reside.

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Sometimes I stand on the shore of Cornwall with my feet in the sand and I face westward, my mind traveling down through my legs, under the waves of the ocean, up over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and back down again, to the northeastern shores of North America where my ancestors caught their first sight of the continent, and finally on into the Appalachians. It’s comforting to know that there is an unbroken connection between here and there, no matter the distance or the terrain that must be traversed. Inside me, wherever I go, I carry all the sights and sounds of smells of Athens: the chickadees eating the suet my parents set out, the daffodils growing beside the old farmhouse where I grew up, the grove of evergreens at the base of Radar Hill, the cry of a pileated woodpecker on the shore of Dow Lake. There is no better proof that you can take the girl out of Appalachia, but you can never take Appalachia out of the girl—something for which I will be eternally grateful.

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This essay was submitted to Growing Up In Athens, a project aiming to compile stories from multiple generations of native Athenians.