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On the Man with One Arm

I blame my parents for my absurd curiosity and wonderment about the world.

What horrible things to instill upon a child.

Both of them flew for Delta… my dad a pilot and my mom a flight attendant. Their conversations of love and life were like something out of the movies. They met in an airport in Miami and among tales of convertibles catching fire and almost ingesting engagement rings in champagne they embraced each other and their exploration of culture. I remember day dreaming to my dad’s stories—seeing the Northern Lights from the cockpit of a 747, watching the sunrise over the equator, base jumping in South America, meeting amazing individuals who all had their own stories to tell. He described these seemingly esoteric moments in a way that made me feel like I was there, floating in the sky. With his words I could close my eyes and feel like a part of everything.

Anything was possible in an area that juxtaposed the infiniteness of space with the finite earth.

As I grew older, I began to lose that sense. I lost myself in the finite and the fool-proof blanket of certainty. I was so focused on my studies that I lost reason to pursue anything else than didn’t guarantee me a path to vet or medical school. It wasn’t horrible. I was happy, I had amazing friends, I got to play soccer and ride horses. Yet now I realize that back then, I truly lacked a sense of agency. I graduated with honors and decided to go to Auburn as a Biology/Pre-Vet track, content in knowing I was going to be in a top-ranked program.

But content is all I was.

My senior year before I graduated from high school, I went on an Ecological research trip to Costa Rica with my A.P Biology class; we spent the majority of the time living at an eco-lodge in cloud forests of pacific coast. The days not spent researching were spent exploring and volunteering at local sugar and coffee plantations.
What was amazing about these farming communities was their ability to adapt. They did not destroy the forest to make a profit, but rather worked with it, nourished it, to help their own crops. It was a collaborative, collective, environment at all angles. And it was a beautiful thing to behold.

The families that owned these farms would bring us fresh coffee and cocoa in return for our help, treats that spoiled us when we came back to the U.S.

I recall, in particular, one man who lost his arm in a sugarcane press—despite the adversity of his situation he worked with more enthusiasm and passion than anyone I ever met, running massive logs in vine-ridden fields where I could only drag one five feet at time before stopping to catch my breath. He always wore a smile on his face.

Neither of us understood each other’s language, but every day he would pull me aside, laugh politely at my schoolbook Spanish, and then teach me conversation through hand gestures and facial expressions. I learned more in the week I spent with him than I did with four years of high school and colligate education. He was of a curious nature as well, so as we went on talking in unfamiliar tongues he learned from me too. In a way, we were united, worlds apart, from this human yearning to learn.

As I slept in the cabins at night, my father’s stories slowly crept into my dreams–and I began to realize that I was actually living one of them. Each night I got to witness nature’s self-care, watching the flow of fog and clouds that crept slowly down the mountainsides at night to provide moisture where little rain could fall. We ran from Salt Water Crocodiles and witnessed an active volcano cough volcanic rocks down its darkening ridges.
But more than anything, it was the man from the sugarcane farm that rekindled this dreaming spirit within me—bringing me into his own culture with little judgment and this sheer human yearning to learn more. Sure, back in my academic systematic method of regurgitating information I was learning in some capacity. But was any of this information really relative to me? Was I truly retaining it? Or was I simply holding onto it to stay at the top of my class, pass the tests, and follow the rules of success? In asking these things to myself I eventually left the path to vet school for a degree in English and Psychology. I thought that, perhaps, these fields would allow me to explore the minds of more individuals, to better understand and appreciate humanity, to fill this insatiable wonderment about the world through learning in a way that appeared to be saturated with meaning in ways my previous path was not.

My love of learning is largely why I was coerced into getting my Master’s degree. I’m laughing at myself for thinking that now, but in that process I still learned in a weird way.

To be short, I was kind of wrong about graduate school. Perhaps, by societal standards, this is a way to fulfill curiosities from safe and career-bound environment. Perhaps if I attended a university more focused on the liberal arts I would feel less trapped. But when I look back at the smiling man with one arm in Costa Rica and then at my Master’s program, I realize that my experience learning from him was far more fruitful than the methodologies we are forced to vomit up to please committees (disclaimer: this isn’t always the experience). In Costa Rica, I was in such a human environment, concentrating on connection and communication between souls. In academia, I am away from that, trying to learn in a solitary space… a space that may work for some, but ultimately left me with a strange feeling of emptiness. Perhaps my extroversion got the best of me here, but I think in the end the juxtaposition of these experiences taught me more about who I want to be as a teacher.

Yet, I have still been so incredibly blessed, and despite my discontent with higher level education, I have learned more about myself then I previously knew. If I wasn’t here now, I’d probably be working in a cubical, wondering what my purpose is. And though at times I still wonder (who doesn’t?), I feel like I have the freedom to pursue different ideas. Uncertainty has lead me to the most random and incredible experiences.

Teaching young minds has taught me the importance of communication and collaboration, about how going outside in the sunlight and reading together can be more effective than sitting in the shadows giving pop quizzes. How sometimes learning from experiences, rather than redundancy, teaches us empathy, self-awareness, and information that stays. I’ve also been able to take the time to travel and write about amazing people and things, and by doing this, have gained a better sense of fulfillment than I ever had previously.

Overall, I realize now how much I strayed from my parent’s tales—thinking that the space between the earth and sky was impossible to reach. Putting success over experiences and passion. But my own experiences, and the man with one arm, come back to remind me all the time. And now my friends continue to inspire me. My family continues to show incessant love despite the fact that they, at times, question my sanity in terms of activity choices. It is because of this collective, this collection of experiences and relationships, that I am where I am, that I am planning to pursue a more vulnerable but fulfilling path… and that once this degree is finished I will be leaving the ivory tower in the pursuit of creation , education, love, and art with people who share similar dreams. Because that space… it is there. It always is and always will be. Sometimes we just have to step out of our comfort zones to get there, to grasp a willingness to work with, listen to, and learn from others and leave this whole concept of the solitary individual behind. In the end, sometimes we can get more from listening than from talking.. from stepping outside of ourselves and seeing the world for what it is.

2 thoughts on “On the Man with One Arm

  1. That was absolutely lovely Katy. Sounds like an amazing experience as well.

    Academia is great, but it’s an easy way to lock ourselves away into tiny rooms with few windows. Civilization is a processed state of existence. It is manufactured by tradition, heritage, and law. Academia, worst of all, is civilization’s factory, pumping out more and more packaged and labelled bits of reality.

    Higher learning has its uses and people have achieved so much through those uses. Still, we shouldn’t be so afraid to step outside the door. Embrace life in a raw state. You can’t divide up and explain away the beauty behind each individual person. Societies can try and those attempts may yield results, but I firmly believe the final result will always be failure.

    I wouldn’t exchange my undergrad degree for anything, though. I needed a dose of academia and of high-minded human intelligence to help me make sense of myself, my world, and my place in it. It seems like you’ll be able to do the same thing with your Mastery degree!

    As long as we realize roses are worth smelling and admiring and not just categorizing, then a little knowledge on top of the romance of living will likely make us appreciate things more. Hopefully.

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