Of condors and conservation, and life’s little conundrums
The place where I buy hay for the sheep is a little mom & pop outfit in a rented pole barn the next town over. They’re based in eastern Washington, but truck over hay and other livestock needs (bedding chips, pellets, feed, etc.), as well as seasonal produce from eastern Washington farms at really good prices. Bonus: the hay they stock my sheep will actually eat. I can spend $5 more per bale at the local feed stores (which my wee gourmands think is nasty), but the Mitchells have a good product at a good price and I like giving them my business. One of the things Martha does is give you a “thought for the day”—a quote or saying, printed out on a little slip of paper—when you pay for your goods. This week it was the well-known quote from George Eliot: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” And it made me smile, because I have just been thinking about the path not taken…
It all started when I read an article recently about the woman who was instrumental in the team of wildlife officials, biologists, and government agencies that saved the California condor from the brink of extinction (and to be clear, we’re still not out of the woods – but there are 500 more condors now than the only-23-left-on-earth in 1987). The title of the piece alone had me thinking how lucky she was to not only be in the right place at the right time, but to have the wherewithal to follow her passion. I thought back to my youth and how ignorant and fearful I was about the opportunities in life.
I was painfully shy as a teenager and our family was struggling. My mom, a single mother, was doing her best, but things were pretty tough. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I took on the anxiety that permeated things, as well as the belief that life was a struggle. Maybe not all the way to “Life’s a shit sandwich and every day you have to take a bite,” but certainly “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” You were destined for a life of hardship, working to make enough money to keep a roof over your head and gas in your car. It wasn’t quite as dreary as all that sounds, but I watched my mom struggle so hard, hard enough that she ended up with serious health issues and, being unable to work, moving 3,000 miles away to live with her sister’s family. (I’d planned to go too, but ended up finding another path.) I had a really tough time coming out of my hard shell of fear (maybe this is why I adore my little box turtles? I understand…?), with a crippling lack of confidence. I was scared of everything – the idea of getting a job after school about paralyzed me (when I could have earned money to help with the family bills – I still feel guilty about this). As I neared my senior year of high school, the idea of college may have been mentioned. I just didn’t know how. I would have had to get a scholarship, which means that I’d have to actually make an effort at school. I skated by easily with a 3.5 GPA, skipping classes when I could, and I can’t remember what my SAT scores were, but I was never motivated to do more. Inertia based on fear based on anxiety based on ignorance. Or something. A nice heady stew there.
Once out of school I began work. First at a fast food restaurant (mercifully brief), then paying a recruiter to get an entry level job at an insurance company (seriously, I had to make payments to the job agency for months, with each paycheck – what kind of f**kery is that? A life’s a shit sandwich confirmation, that’s what! Haha!). And so it began. My family was carless at the time, so as soon as I could swing it, I got a co-signed loan to buy a car (which I couldn’t even drive at first – we didn’t have a car for me to take my driving test until I bought my own car at age 19). And we no longer had to take the bus everywhere (the grocery store being the most arduous). And incrementally, life got better – my older sister was a big part of this, helping with her paycheck too, with her and her roommate living in the same house as me and my mom and brother.
In the work force and out of the public school system I became less shy, and actually made real friends for the first time in what seemed like years. But I never really had a plan; I just worked to keep a roof over my head and gas in the fuel tank, and never knew or planned where I was going, ultimately. I don’t think I’m unique in that, but looking back I do wish I’d been more aware. Day to day was about all I did, all I’ve done, for most of my life (the past decade or so being the exception, kind of). Again, not unique, and nothing “wrong” with this, but I guess it’s not enough for me now. It’s not like I never had an existential thought either – the old “what are we here for?” was not an unknown thought to me. But although I pondered this, I was never able to put it into action.
Now, later in life, I look back and realize that although the idea of college was very distasteful (read: scary) to me at 17, it would have afforded me so much in the confidence department, where I really needed it. I didn’t know what I wanted to “be” or do either, so it was another reason to avoid college – the suggested business degree (barf) and more classrooms sounded about as much fun as giving myself a root canal. I loved animals, always – the one constant in my life – but I didn’t want to go to vet school (after 12 years of school I was done – again, not realizing college is nothing like grade school – and another 8 years of school just didn’t sound appealing).
Over the years I’ve taken CE classes in topics that interested me – creative writing, writing for income, drawing, painting, and the like – but never more than that. In my 40s I went back to school and got my editing certificate and I found I LOVED college and learning. I loved the atmosphere, and even the learning process. It was an eye-opener – like, maybe I had missed out… But the once or twice a week classes after work weren’t easy, either, while working a full time job. And by then I was divorced and needed a steady income – there was zero safety net (pretty much always).
It’s only in the last 5 years or so that I’ve thought about what I didn’t do with my life. A product of aging, sure, but now the idea of becoming, say, a biologist, appeals in a way it never did before. Lately it’s the dogs again, and learning more about behavior and training. But as much as I find this stuff fascinating, and important (trying to get a bead on a rescue dog’s impetus – usually fear – for behavior issues), I’m a lousy dog trainer. I have good dogs only because they are good souls at their core, not because I’m trained them that way.
I guess all of this rambling is little more than a bit of wistfulness at not doing more with my life – I feel like I have nothing much to show for the time I’ve been here so far. I think that’s why Rottweiler rescue work has been so fulfilling – it has meaning, and is something outside of myself that feels like I’m making a difference. I’m not saving California condors from extinction, no, but a few throwaway dogs are living much better lives because of what I’m doing. And that’s something. I have a fair amount of knowledge about the natural world (birds, wildlife, local flora), and dogs and dog behaviors, but nothing I feel I could do anything with. I’ve accomplished a lot that I’m proud of, but nothing I feel makes that difference that saving a species makes. (Yes, I realize only a few people have lives like this, who can go down in history or are remembered by name…but still.) I guess I’ll just wrap up these musings with a quote from one of my life heroes – Jane Goodall, who makes me realize there’s time yet, if only I make use of it: “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” Don’t you just love her?