Out of France and into the Fire

I don’t live in France anymore. I spent my last moments in the Pézenas apartment taking a bath—planning to explore that metaphor more later—kissed my lover goodbye, and flew home. Basic communication with strangers isn’t daunting any more. Pastries are a non-event. There are a lot of American flags attached to pickup trucks in my day-to-day. Small towns are no longer constructed of old stone and vine revolving around a central church, but instead large stretches of asphalt from one beige stucco house to the next to the Walmart to the southwestern wilds that are like nothing else in Europe.

That’s where I am. Kind of. Well, I’m in a trailer in a state park named after a dead horse with a beebee gun in the cabinet and blues on the radio. I’ve traded killing time speaking English in front of classrooms of disinterested French high schoolers to dripping sweat over the dry Arizonan soil with a cohort of four American high schoolers who think that a good way to spend their summer is doing hard manual labor under a sweltering desert sun. That’s where I am. With my six-foot-something coleader sleeping in a tent in the front yard amid a screaming chorus of crickets and a night sky that only the dry desert air can display.

This summer, I’m working for the Arizona Conservation Corps as a mentor for the youth program. My location is the Verde Valley (pronounced VUR-dee), a region of Arizona consisting of a few small towns with names like Cottonwood, Camp Verde, Cornville, Clarkdale, Centerville, Jerome (an abandoned mining town turned artsy hippie community). The small towns are deeply American, just as the landscape is deeply southwestern: cactus, red dirt, expansive blue skies, cottonwoods and willows weeping over the Verde River, the longest free-running river in Arizona.  I’m getting battle wounds from the mesquite tree thorns here that may never go away.

Said days usually start with coffee around six in the morning. Cowboy coffee: beans soaked in boiling water which usually end up getting consumed too. Oatmeal. Pick up the youths. Fifteen minutes of physical training and fifteen minutes of stretching. A few hours of pulling invasive weeds or trees, some of which are so volatile that every pore in your body leaks in protest. A few hours of trail building. Maybe mixing up mud for planting seeds. Hiking. Collecting dragon fly larvae. The jobs vary, but the heat is a constant, boiling away my skin and humidifying the sweat under my thick collared uniform. The brilliant sarcasm from my corps members is another constant. Laughing so hard I can’t get my body to keep working. Two fifteen minute breaks and a thirty minute lunch. We finish at 3:30, and I get to hike, bike, fish, paint, write, go to Taco Belle with the rest of my afternoon.  Then dinner, make lunch for the next day. I’m usually in bed by nine.

The days are steady and predictable in a way that only a day constructed around eight hours of hard work can be. Slow days built by slow work whose effects feel dubious from such close proximity (what is five hours of pulling napweed when it will only be back in a matter of months?). But the river here is not a strong one anyway.

It meanders. Sometimes, you wonder if there’s a current in its water at all, sitting idle between its grassy banks with something that looks like rotten peanut butter on top. This is all just a lesson in slowness anyway. This river that gives no heed to here or there has supported life for centuries. Look to the ruins at Montezuma’s Castle or Tuzigoot. Look around and see all the miraculous green for which the Verde is named. Listen to the bugs. Watch out for snakes.

Baths don’t always get you cleaner. Rivers don’t always display obvious force. Time is just a labelled bag.

This is where I am.

Ekphrasis: Flora and Fauna

*Guest post by the renowned Sirrah K. A. Pfotenhauer on his art project among nature this weekend.

When asked what the greatest contribution of humanity to the world is I answer with three  words, two things: Flora and fauna. It is here where humanity excels beyond all other species. Where would the world be without the beautiful Butt of Cigarette? Do you really want to live in a world where no Toilette Papier is spread among the disgusting plant life that is trying to take over this wondrous planet? I, for one, do not. I even convinced the birds to join in the war we wage, as you can witness by the lovely spatter of fecal matter above.

Following the footsteps (wingsteps?) of the bird, I went ahead and placed a plastic bag of human shit near some plants.After placing various flora and fauna around some goddamn cactus/tree/bush/who gives a shit, I realized that the earth was really the problem. I decided that I would begin by placing a plastic bottle of alcohol, sans alcohol, inside it. Now I had the upper hand. To signify the shift in power positions, I smashed a bottle cap into the earth. Upon the bottle cap was simply written “Union Jack.” This, of course, is an homage to the British Empire, the great colonizers of humanity. God save the fucking queen and not anything else. Bless those goddamn Brits for mass production that they may or may not have started, but certainly use.

What more could one need in this world than mass produced shoes and a rag? Coor’s Light to get things started. At least, that’s where I started. After a small, plastic bottle of Jim Bean (priced at $7.99 before tax), I decided it would be a good idea to place an alcohol pipeline in the earth. It should be able to imbibe like the rest of us. Turns out the earth is actually a communist space traveler and drinks some beer called Red Moon. Guess I’m done helping this Bernie Sanders loving, teet-suckling bastard.

Teaching Assistant Program in France

 

 

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Marseilles, France

“The only difference
between flight and falling
is distance”

“8 Frames of a Boy Falling From a Ferris Wheel” by Nate Maxson

I have known I wanted to teach abroad since high school, a combination of productivity and travel that little else encompasses so well. A few months ago, while thinking about what I might do after graduation, I looked into the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF), a program for native English speakers to live in France for a year and teach English and (for me) American culture for a year in a French school. Sounded good. With my summer camp and tutoring experience, I felt qualified, so I applied, only to later discover that TAPIF is, actually, an extremely competitive program.

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Nice, France

I was put on the wait-list at the beginning of April. Although initially devastated–since I hadn’t really put any effort into planning anything else–I started making other arrangements to move to Albuquerque where one of my friends already lived. I had possibly convinced another best friend (currently residing in Scotland) to move with me and, possibly, a significant other. I was growing comfortable in my post-graduation decisions to take a break from academia and not go straight into graduate school, like many of my peers, even without the romance of Europe ahead. I was trading the extraordinary for a year of friendship and love. Since moving to college, I have not been able to hang onto the same group of people for longer than a year due to constant moving (studied abroad my sophmore year, had two of my best friends graduate my junior year), each year acting as a painful reintroduction to starting over. I was getting excited to be with (possibly) three of my favorite people from the get-go, and settle into the comfort of happiness.

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Albuquerque, NM

However, last week, TAPIF offered me a position in the Montpellier region of France (one of my top choices) with secondary education, and, being the sort of opportunity you don’t turn down, I took it.

Since the acceptance, I’ve been having trouble paying attention to school. I can’t stop dreaming about what life in southern France will look like next year. Weekends spent on the Mediterranean. Free time endlessly spent reading and writing in little French cafés (TAPIF only requires 12 HOURS OF WORK A WEEK! Right now, between class, work, and church, I have 37 hours a week of obligations, not including homework) while picking up smoking from long, chic cigarette holders. Seducing mustachio’d French men with my berets and red lipstick. I am infatuated with the possibility of the best year of my life lying just a few months ahead of me.

However, I also find myself unable to stop thinking about this dichotomy between comfort and adventure in which my future has now planted itself. The choice I made between Montpellier and Albuquerque is one between solitude and company. I know nobody in southern France, and my French isn’t even at a native fluency level yet. I am, inevitably, facing a year of isolation I have never yet experienced. I do not mean this in any way to say that comfort and company are worth any more (or less) than adventure and solitude, but why, exactly, have I picked the latter when I, often, yearn for the former?

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Unidentified Location in France

Perhaps I am simply in love with the romance of the youthful narrative where I, as an independent woman who don’t need no man, travel alone to enrich my worldly perspective and give the finger to settling down. Perhaps I am in love with the 1920s vision of the ex-pat writer settling into French life to paint in the contours of their artistry. Perhaps it is just my practical side saying, “Look. You want to study comparative literature and maybe go into a bit of translation. Your French needs to be better for that shit, Lizzy.” Really, it is a culmination of all these things. TAPIF is not the kind of offer you turn down. Yet, with all of this, I still mourn the loss of the life I had been planning in Albuquerque.

 

I am excited for my year ahead in France, but I am also excited for a time where I can find two years stapled together by a measure of happy stationariness, even (hopefully) during my youth.

Art and Literature in the American Southwest

I had the lovely opportunity to spend this past weekend with my honors class Art and Literature in the American Southwest camping, painting, and writing at Lee’s Ferry, Marble Canyon, and Horseshoe Bend with local Flagstaff artist Bruce Aiken and honors professor and writer Robyn Martin. All of my previous painting experience has consisted of getting drunk with my friends and painting “Fuck Off” on stuff, but, this weekend, I also learned to watercolor southwestern landscapes to a somewhat-acceptable degree. Additionally, I took on the task of fitting all of my creative writing prompts into my well-loved form of the letter:

Prompt: At Lonely Dell, the homestead of Emma Lee near Lee’s Ferry, we were told to write a letter to Emma Lee. She was one of the Mormon martyr John D. Lee’s nineteen wives (each with their own, separate homestead which only saw John D. Lee himself from time to time), a mother of nine, and later a midwife in Winslow, AZ.

Dear Emma Lee,
There is something to your name that was built to slide off of the tongue. I have not known you, nor am I familiar with you story past a cursory glance at an hour of new-found oral history. But your name was meant to fit into mouths, Emma Lee, those of natives,

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Lonely Dell

those of Mormons, children, husbands, laboring mothers, decedents, visitors. How did his name, Lee, tack  onto the end of the other wives’ names, I wonder? How did you share the love of a man, his seed, your God with women planted across the red rock of this place you call “Lonely Dell,” Emma Lee? What did this loneliness feel like in the knowledge of his social abundance scattered, planted, and growing despite the dryness of this landscape?

 

Emma Lee, your name is reminiscent of my gentile Eve, a trapdoor of consonant sandwiched between open vowel. I admire the garden you have here, dear Emma Lee, sown in the dust of the original sin which shaped the world in which you must toil. Please, warn me, your tourists, the daughters you have ushered into this world of any snakes, Emma. In the southwest, I hear, lost innocence is not chosen, but stolen with a rattle.
Love, Lizzy

Prompt: After reading Terry Tempest Williams‘s “Why I Write”, answer the question “Why do you write?”

A Love Letter from the Pen to Thoughts

 

Dear Thoughts,
How are you? How have you been since your last letter, the one where you smeared my ink on the word

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The Colorado River

“and” with the side of your hand and said a bit of vocabulary at me, even though we both know it wasn’t my fault? I’m sorry that our relationship has taken on this rapport of ours, even though we both know that it isn’t my fault. You, with your untamed violence, thrashing out from the boned confines of your prison skull, and me, sitting placid in the relative freedom of being outside the human body, but dang it if we don’t both need that body to move. I’m sorry that our affair is one of dependence like this.

Sometimes, thoughts, I imagine what it must be like to exist in such vastness only to have me reduce yourself to my thin stream of ink, to pass on to others to expand again. I’m glad you choose me over voice, though, for my permanence scratched out with time over his quickness and ease. In this way, thoughts, I find our intimacy. I rejoice in my ability to give you the timely space to create a similacrum of yourself in my minute form.
Love, The Pen

Prompt: Write two haikus about how you have changed over the course of this trip.

A letter to me:
briefly, leave word for image
in watercolors.

Discover color
outside of typed black and white.
Like rocks, bleed in red.

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Horseshoe Bend

 

The Colorado River and the West

Good Colorado River Music

Memoirs from an Honors trip to Yuma and Mexico to study Colorado River restoration:

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“Can I just sit and not pee?”

Anonymous

“Tomorrow morning we’ll just have blue dark skinny time.”

EH

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Ahn-drea. It’s a hard ahn.”

JN

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“Your watch–that’s analogue–won’t change with timezones.”

SL

“We’ll just be wet little urchins.”

EH

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“So, are you cousin Jackson or brother Jackson or…”
“Well, I’m Lizzy.”

EH and Me

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“All moms are people. All babies are grandpas too.”

EH

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“White supremacy.”

TH

“If you love the sauce so much, why don’t you marry it? Like give it a ring and make the cashier an undercover priest?”

JN

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“That child looks like chocolate.”

EH

“Let’s reconvene white supremacy.”

TH

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IMG_0221“You’re not a butthole; you’re a sphincter.”

CS

“You’re an appendix. No one notices you till you explode.”

G

“Guys, we met Shannon yesterday.”

Me

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An Anniversary of my Love Affair with the Southwest

11178221_466286380188047_4499056919239508209_nTomorrow I will be returning to Yuma, Arizona and Sonora, Mexico for restoration work on the Colorado River Delta through an independent study with Honors. Last year, I participated in this work through an Honors class, “The Colorado River and the West,” where we learned about the Southwest’s relationship to water and how human damming of the Colorado has affected its wildlife. As part of our restoration work, we planted trees at Yuma’s East Wetlands on the banks of the Colorado River, and then more the next day with Reforesta San Luis in Mexico. This class and that trip ended up having a large influence on my current relationship with the Southwest (basically, do I ever really want to leave?). In getting ready for my return, I found my final day’s journaling from last year (a spontaneous, fifteen-minute assignment that some spent petting a dog), and its brief reflection has me all the more excited:

As we wind to a close on this trip, I find myself reflecting on the nature of how I connect to these

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Chauncey Ranch, Mayer, AZ

places. For instance, right now, on the banks of the Colorado River, the heat of the sun and the sound of the birds fill me with a pleasure related to reminiscence: they resemble the heat and sound of my hometown, Chandler. Similarly, yesterday at the Laguna Grande, I was reminded of my summer camp [Chauncey Ranch, Mayer, Arizona; Rest in peace, my love] through the sparse vegetation mingled with cottonwoods and their sounds–with purple mountains on the horizon. Especially in this setting, it felt like camp as we bounced along the dirt road in our long van. Everything reminded me of happy, past moments, filling me with the calm joy of nostalgia. But my memories were layered with the experience of making new memories to inspire a later nostalgia too. That time I went to Mexico and planted trees. That time I had my first real Mexican food at a fiesta. That time we learned about Ant Lions. 

I can’t help but think of this co-existence of past, present, and future in terms of the Colorado River and its wetlands too. When we look at these areas, I believe we are all inspired to a degree by a sense of total nature, untouched by humans, that we may have never personally known, but connect to in an instant, automatic, human sense. So we work to create places to inspire this mysterious, sourceless nostalgia through our conservation work. We plant trees not only for the sake of habitats, but to allow future generations to connect to the past of their planet. We learn about the Southwest’s use of water not only to conserve plain life for the future, but to create spaces reminiscent of a time when we lived with the land, instead of against it. 

April 2015

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*Note on the pictures: I barely took any on the trip myself. Whoops. I was planting trees. The first picture of the cacti is from South Mountain in Phoenix. The two from Mexico were taken from Reforesta San Luis’s Facebook page.