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  • Writer's picturejulietertin

All the Things I Wish I Could Say

While setting up camp during a short backpacking trip, I stepped into my hundredth prickly pear since moving to the desert. My toes lit up in pain. I remembered the advice Dustin gave me when I got here: don't touch anything in the desert. Everything will hurt you.

I am still hopeful to complete my first bloodless run here, in fact. I always leave a red smudge on the mountain or come home with fresh stinging scratches. As I was picking a couple dozen little pancake spines out of my foot, I wondered how the pear got so prickly.

Was it because the desert was too harsh? Because its leaves shriveled up smaller and smaller until they became sharp needles that both kept hungry mouths away and water from evaporating? Is a cactus just the survival semblance of a softer plant? Her defenses are shrewd but not impenetrable. Camels and javelinas adapted a hard palate in their mouths to grind her spikes against. Their papillae slide the needles vertically down their throats. Who is winning this timeless, worldwide battle of change? Adapt to kill, adapt to live.

I don't own many movies, but I have a collection of my classics. Adaptation makes the cut. Adaptation is the process of adjusting something to better match its environment or situation. Evolution is a broad term that refers to any change in anything over time.

John Laroche: You know why I like plants?

Susan Orlean: Nuh uh.

John Laroche: Because they're so mutable. Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world.

Susan Orlean: [pause] Yeah but it's easier for plants. I mean they have no memory. They just move on to whatever's next. With a person though, adapting is almost shameful. It's like running away.


"You moved to New Mexico?" laughed the voice over my phone speaker, "So you're still running." I felt like I was being pinned down. No wonder I never answer my phone, I thought ruefully. Embarrassment washed over me, like I had chosen cowardice at a time to be courageous. It didn't help that, at that exact moment, I was in the mountains, and I was running. "No," I answered calmly. "I moved. I moved on. I never intended to stay in Minnesota, and I'm not going back." Adapting is not easy. Meryl Streep was right about that, even if she was stoned on orchid dust in a Fakahatchee swamp.

Stabbed by the sword of the yucca.

We hung up, and I finished my climb to the crest. I thought about what had been said. I observed defensiveness in my feelings. I have been accused of running away before. My phone lit up at midnight, just as I was crossing the Minnesota state line on my way to move to Colorado. You can start over and make friends anywhere, but when they find out who you really are, you'll lose them. You can't run away from yourself.


If you think you'll fail, you probably will. If you think you can never leave, you can't. Remember the parable of the little elephant. It registered to me as an attempt to plant doubt, to undercut my confidence, to keep me dependent. Could those words be true? It would be intolerant not to ask thoughtfully. Sometimes you have to entertain offensive ideas.

Of course I was worried that it was me. Look at the mess I made from my mistakes. I'm the sick one. The message back was yes you are, look what you did. Much of the hurt and responsibility of losing a marriage is on my side of the street. I will not minimize that. The frustrating part now, though, the part that sometimes drives me to want to desperately scream at the top of my lungs for someone to hear me, is that I'm not even sure it's worth searching for understanding that was never given. It's not like validation is prorated.

I started drinking my feelings years ago and, like any alcoholic, I got worse, never better. Since I was going to be wrong anyway, I started to be more wrong. Bukowski said, "When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.” Alcohol is the great emotional buffer, and you can think you can control it because you can measure it in ounces.

Thank god I learned a while ago that, just because people say words with rhetoric or righteousness, it doesn't prove them right. Power doesn't make things truer.

We are all fucked up. It's a bold position to make your problems all someone else's fault, especially when that person is sick. There's a hot injustice that flushes into my cheeks when I remember. I remind myself that I don't need a podium or an audience. I fight this battle with myself where I try to live in my reality and allow my feelings breathing room. What judgments hang above me that I could easily cut down? I want to shake my proof, name names, and demand to be heard. I want to explain so you believe me that I'm not as bad as you said I was, as bad as the person you treated me like I was. I've had to listen, I've been made to listen, a thousand times. My silence is not acceptance. How misunderstood am I? I want vindication I will never have.

Instead, I'm left with a pile of anger and the lonely consequences of crossing that state line. Consequences that delight someone else because they feel satisfied in their vindication. Because it is what I deserved.

Is it possible I deserved something else? I dare you to entertain an offensive idea, too.

But again, chica, unplug the microphone. Adapting to my new life in sobriety includes not allowing the alcoholic mind to do what it does best: obsess. To marinate and walk backward memory does nothing to help me. I need to right-size and release my resentments (a word that originates from the Latin word sentire: to feel). A resentment is a re-feeling. I do not need to re-feel, over and over again, all of the predators that drove me to spines. I was caught by the throat back then, and I did not even know it. It's important to decipher what is a cause and what is a symptom. It's hard when you are judged for the symptoms, but I get it.

I celebrate nine months tomorrow.

Leaving a desert place in order to thrive is not running away.

“What I came to understand is that change is not a choice, not for a species of plant, not for me. It happens, and you are different.”

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