By Jen Jackson Quintano
One habit I’ve maintained from my once-upon-a-time years as a writer is keeping a notebook on hand at all times. Everywhere I go, paper and pen are at the ready in case inspiration hits. These days, inspiration typically comes in the form of ideas on how to take down a tree safely, how to staff the week’s jobs or how to handle those after-school hours wherein I’m still working but my daughter is not. Occasionally, though, big thoughts still emerge from my business-burdened brain and make it into the Notebook of the Interior. Occasionally, inspiration and introspection beckon.
Recently, one burbling from the depths appeared as, There are other ways to be strong besides running a chainsaw, a statement that is both obvious and arresting. I had never considered that my occupational choices were compensating for anything.
And I don’t think that’s entirely the case. My work as an arborist is somewhat a product of my affinities for my husband, physical exertion and the great outdoors. Tyler brought tree work into my life, and I embraced it for all the great loves that it fed. Yet, there’s also the part of me that really likes the image you currently see on the page, the one in which I’m sporting a Metallica T-shirt and chainsaw. That image makes a statement about being strong and tough. Add on the fact that, with logging boots, I stand at about 6’2”, and the picture is complete.
The thing is, that’s not who I am at my core — I like to think of myself as a compassionate, sensitive and thoughtful person — but I do enjoy having that image at my disposal. I appreciate the armor it provides. I like that, sometimes, I don’t have to feel as vulnerable as I am.
In my 20s, I became acutely aware of my own vulnerability, as is the story for all too many women. I was drugged and raped. For someone who grew up as an overachiever in a quiet town within an all-American family, this was an eye-opening (and soul-crushing and generally life-altering) experience for me. To learn that one can do everything right and still have life turn out wrong, wrong, wrong… well, it converted me into something of a nihilist for a time. I lost hold of my own value and the meaning of my path. I started courting risk so I could control it. I was the hunter, not the hunted. If I could talk to my 20-something self, I’d recommend therapy instead of destruction, but everyone takes their own winding path through trauma. Some people leave it writ rather largely across the landscape of their lives.
At this point, the events of those years feel like they happened to someone else. That was all decades ago. I’ve made my peace with my past. Yet, I see how the tendrils of that time still thread through the fabric of my world today. Like trees that develop reaction wood in response to wind, making themselves sturdier and straighter, abler to handle the next storm, I too have compensated for trauma.
Appearing strong is of paramount importance to me. Reclaiming my power is a continuing theme. A chainsaw is an excellent tool for making one feel powerful. The physical strength built by arborist work is good armor. I do not fear the past repeating itself — but I’m prepared just in case.
Over the years, I’ve been commended for my strength, and the overachiever in me has taken it to mean that, if a little is good, a lot is better. However, in recent years, I’ve come to learn that the kind of strength that presents as armor is an impediment to vulnerability and self-awareness. Reactionary strength isn’t always healthy (except for in trees). Armor doesn’t allow much inspiration and introspection into the ever-present Notebook of the Interior.
During tree season, I am tough, but I am not vulnerable. During tree season, my depths aren’t always present.
I wonder how often it is that our professions and our pathologies intersect. How many of us are unconsciously compensating for something? I wonder, too, how many strong women were born that way, raised that way or instead had to learn to be so. The thing about being human is that we’re all the walking wounded. It’s how we bear our scars that differentiates one person from the next. There might just be a little bit of my backstory in the chainsaw I carry.
When I was fresh out of college — and still a bit of a post-traumatic hot mess — I took a job about as far from civilization as one can get, at Natural Bridges National Monument. The closest town was 36 miles away. Hemmed in by canyons and with a staff of about a dozen onsite, I figured it was the safest place — while still being adventurous — that one could be. My second night there was my birthday, and the staff celebrated. The maintenance guy plied me with shot upon shot of tequila until I blacked out. He then led me to his single-wide trailer for the night, me protesting the whole way, according to later accounts. The next day, I was left with a sense of, Even here? Really? If I couldn’t count on isolation to protect me, then I could only count on me.
And now I can. I am grounded in my strength. I am stable and secure and loved and cared for. I came out the other side of a tumultuous decade into a good place. Now it’s my job to parse out which of my strengths are truly powerful and which are pathological. Which strengths serve me and which hold me back from being truly me.
I can tell you, the Metallica shirt is me, for better or for worse. When I first visited Tyler’s abode, early in our courtship, he had Master of Puppets playing (which a death metal website jokingly changed to Manger of Equals as a nod to the new woke era). He apologized and turned it down. I shook my head and turned it back up, knowing — for many, many reasons — that I’d found my safe harbor, my partner, my equal, my guy. Being with him has helped me to become stronger in all the right ways because, with him, I can be vulnerable, too. He is a part of my post-storm reaction wood, growth rings of our togetherness making me sturdier.
Which is another insight from the Notebook of the Interior.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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