Growing up, I often had this vision of my life as an adult. I lived in a comfortable suburban home, and, after a full day of work, I pulled up in my two-car garage. Before going inside, I paused for a moment to reflect on who I was, what I’d accomplished, and where I was at in my life. Then, suddenly, I pulled out a gun, pointing it at my head. As a child, I knew there had to be more in life, but I had no idea what it was or how even to begin to find it.
At 16, I went on a summer program to Spain. On the plane ride home from those intoxicating weeks abroad, I made myself a promise. I’d live in places increasingly different from my home in suburban Los Angeles until I reached the most distant and different place I could find. Over the next six years, I went to college on the East Coast, studied abroad in Paris, and toured Australia, Europe, and Asia. Then I left to teach for a year in Ecuador. It was there that I found what had been so absent and unknown in my childhood that I couldn’t even name it. At my good-bye party, a student came up to me, placing her hand over my heart. “Chimborazo es tu corazón,” she said. That tall Andean peak, the namesake of our province and the center of the country, had begun to open my heart.
Soon after, I started graduate school in Chicago, but at night I’d put my homemade cassette of Latin dance music in the stereo, twirl around for a few minutes by myself, and collapse in tears. I dove into pages of logic, philosophy of science, and Freud, but it was Marx who caught my attention. I didn’t believe in his solution, but he described the problem in a way that blew my mind open. Western materialism, the life I’d grown up with, felt empty because it removed us so far from the basic acts of living – from things like making a home, gathering food, and building community – that we could not truly recognize ourselves or our world.
The next year I found myself back in Ecuador, and within another year, I’d made my way to the Ecuadorian Chocó, a coastal rainforest not far from the Colombian border. I didn’t want to be that white person who showed up saying, “Now teach me what it is like to be you,” so I made myself another promise. In return for learning from the native Chachi and Afro-descendent people who lived there, I’d share whatever I had that could be of use. It took no more than a few weeks to realize that, while I’d finally reached the most distant and different place I could find, that magical forest, along with the way of life it sustained, was disappearing before my eyes. The next few years of my life were taken up with trying to help mitigate the devastating losses and, at the same time, to help the people navigate the sudden poverty, illness, and alienation that came with globalization. I married a young Chachi man and our two families created a non-profit organization for grass-roots conservation and sustainable development. But we were fighting against forces much greater than us.
Over time, those forces took their toll. Yet I always found a way to retrench, to fight back, to grow more and start again. I went back to L.A. when I nearly died of Dengue Fever giving birth to our first child. I returned full-time to Ecuador when the director of our organization began corrupting it for her own interests. I kept going as the region turned more violent and more desperate, and even after we were held up at gunpoint in the middle of the night. When the kidnapping threats increased, I fled with my family to a distant region of the country. And when our children were attacked again there, I went back to the States and back to graduate school. I persisted when my department could not understand what the rainforest had to do with philosophy, or how a mom with three young kids could earn a Ph.D. When my tenure-track job offer fell through, I took a temporary teaching position. When my efforts to go back on the tight academic job market were foiled by a concussion, I studied meditation and healing. I faced my trauma, working through nightmare after nightmare and periods of constant panic attacks. I even healed my gallbladder that had been packed with stones. Finally, I reached the point where I realized that my children, their father, our whole family had made it together to the other side of an excruciating odyssey. At the same time, I learned that the extreme fatigue, the cognitive difficulties, and the trouble with movement that I still experienced were part of a neurodegenerative illness.
At 45, I have the energy and ability of someone much older. Yet I also feel that I have a bit more of the peace of mind that comes with age. We all live now in difficult times, where no one escapes at least some of the alienation, violence, and loss that I experienced earlier. This is a crossroads for our planet, a turning point for our species. Although I no longer have the strength to fight on the frontlines, I feel that it is time to share my insights and stories. I have hope that collectively we will make it to the other side together. We will find the gifts, the growth, and the understanding that come from facing our crises. And I know in my heart that whatever the outcome, whatever the ashes are from which we must grow our new world, the important part is that we try.