The Rock

Every June I start working on my summer feet. I begin slowly, tiptoeing on the gravel path that runs between our front door and the cement driveway. The driveway is cold and smooth, but safe. I force myself shoeless on thickets and sole-less on dirt roads. By August, my feet are tough and calloused, ready for the crooked shores of Maine. Flip-flops and sneakers are now obsolete. Gas pedals gag abrupt starts and stops without the control of a shoe. Toenails are sacrificed and grass stains serve as nail polish. Forgetting the nicks and tears of unforgiving blackberry bushes, I remain proud.

Summer feet have always made me feel adventurous and courageous. I am a barefoot warrior. They are a testament to my will to travel and explore. Summer feet whisper, “You are bold and daring” when I am stagnant in the JOB suburbs or feeling inadequate. My confidence in summer feet pushed me to apply to Dartmouth. The D-Plan was advertised in every pamphlet and package I sorted through: Dartmouth students grinning on the Great Wall of China, eating schnitzel or ramen, running a themed 5k abroad. All other prospective colleges turned grey and boring. Hanover was Mecca for fellow adventurers.

Arriving at Dartmouth, I became transfixed with obtaining the perfect D-Plan. Opportunities seemed endless with a wide array of FSPs, foreign internships, and run down hostels. Beginning freshman year I was convinced my sophomore and junior terms would be feathered with backpacking trips and a lucrative internship at an environmental NGO. 

Sophomore year I was in Hanover for the long haul. I boarded that four-term train and felt like I was riding first class. I loved Dartmouth and was enamored by what the quiet campus could offer. I stayed cooped up inside where winter’s snap couldn’t sting me, my feet pampered and shelled inside well-worn Bean boots.

I was high on a four-term trip, but the barefoot warrior made me feel guilty for my Hanover addiction. “You owe it to yourself! To get outside and see the world!” she screamed.

I applied to FSPs because I thought it was the right thing to do. I lucked out and was accepted to the English FSP in Glasgow, a program I was actually passionate about. Entering my sophomore spring, a new reality emerged: the dreaded two-term departure.

People warned me about the consequences of spending two consecutive terms away from Dartmouth. “When you come back things might just be different”… “I talked to one ’12 who did that, and she doesn't recommend it”… “You’re probably going to break up if you’re gone for that long.” 

I needed reassurance that I was still an explorer. Stubborn and determined, I planned to spend my junior fall in Glasgow and travel the following winter. I used terms like “strong, independent woman” and threw up peace signs to convey the confidence in my decision. By the end of 14X these actions were hollow. Before leaving campus, I lay alone in the middle of the Green. Pretending to take a nap, I kissed the ground and said goodbye to Hanover for the next seven months.

*

For the past four weeks, I’ve been taking a watercolor class. We meet at the Honolulu Museum of Art, fifteen minutes outside of Waikiki. A man named Anthony, who once worked for Ralph Lauren in New York, teaches the class. He tells us not to wear cool colors in autumn.

Anthony’s demonstrations are effortless as he makes images appear. We’ve been working with the same picture of a rural barn for three weeks now. First a monochromatic depiction in burnt sienna, then a nightscape. This week, we will finally add color. My pieces are constrained and flat, as colors bleed across the page. 

All my classmates are thirty years my senior. Middle-aged housewives and grandmothers giving retirement color. Some moved from the East Coast years ago and sympathize with the blizzards that routinely spike New England. Others grew up here in Oahu and ask how long I’ve been living on island. Most haven’t heard of Dartmouth, though one woman remarked, “Oh that's a smart school.”

I realize I haven’t pursued something I’m not good at in a long time. At Dartmouth, there are many talented people who are smarter, faster, or funnier than me. But I let them occupy their terrain while I defend my own. At Dartmouth I’ve stuck to doing things I do well.

During our first critique, Anthony’s ladies showed me up. Their paintings were immaculate, deep, and spontaneous. I smiled, because I could recognize my piece was so bad. Anthony’s watercolor class has taught me humility. At Dartmouth, I learn inadequacy. My avoidance creates a feeling of incapability.

But I have nothing to lose in Honolulu. Come March I head back to the mainland, and sloppy watercolors can hide in packed bags stuffed with travel books and hand towels. I remember humility, because I don’t seek to be the best.

In Hanover a specific lifestyle is prescribed. Past the Ledyard Bridge, the greater world seems to function with separate codes of subtleties and routine.

No longer are my ID, phone and credit cards safe hanging loosely in my back pocket. A Scottish man whispers, “Your phone looks very steal-able” in my ear and lingers. I’m unsure whether I am the recipient of a kitsch pick up line or a friendly reminder about Glasgow’s rampant pick pocketing.

In Oahu, being local doesn't open the door to beer and tackies. Being local grants undisputed priority in all surf line-ups.

In Hanover, Japanese completed my language requirement. In Honolulu, it allows me to secretly listen in on the conservations of cranky tourists. 

*

Since Glasgow, I’ve been working for a shark conversation organization that educates through art advocacy and Sustainable Coastlines, a beach cleanup crew.  I spend my days picking micro-plastic from shoreline crevices or sorting recyclables for Kelly Slater. Yesterday, I was on spray patrol at a mural festival, protecting unattended cars from airborne spray paint.

When I’m not working, I’m learning to surf. Like Anthony’s class, surfing is totally new. I am fragile amid breaking waves and rip tides. My hair twists like seaweed in the water’s whitewash.

My father was a surfer of the 60s. On the East Coast, he surfed all day and tried to hide his sunburn from the steaming grill when flipping burgers at night. One winter he saw Oahu and Kauai and surfed on the North Shore. It was nirvana.

My dad says that he and his friends used to call Hawaii “the rock.” Many of his classmates and buddies went to Hawaii for the waves and never left. When you were on the rock, you got stuck. Plane tickets home were cashed in for long board and zinc funds.

I see how someone could get stuck in Oahu. The posted speed limit rarely climbs over 35 mph. The Hawaiian alphabet consists of only six vowels and 9 consonants—lots of “k”, “p”, “l”, and “m”— and the adjacent streets are named Kapiolani, Kalakaua and Kaimuki.  Getting lost is easy. But when life is slowed down you find patches of unplucked lillikoi vines, warehouses striped with graffiti, and smiling faces with helpful directions. Life is simple and full. My rewards are small but frequent.

Hanover hides the threat of real life behind pine trees, salty dog rags and FoCo cookies. I’ve found comfort in the pattern of 2As, Dirt iced chais, and Wednesday nights. Paul Simon loved like a rock for a reason. At Dartmouth I’ve found a rhythmic way of life that is shielded from great injury.

I am thankful for Dartmouth because amidst the familiarity and ease of Hanover, there is always space to break away. My two terms abroad have been rewarding — I am grateful for my irregular and open D-Plan. My barefoot warrior is satisfied and replenished. She looks forward to returning home.