Essay: Present Pioneer

She finds what it takes to start over.


This is the sixth in our series of essay contest winners.


I have always been a nature girl, playing among trees, making mud pies and collecting rocks. Jack London was my favorite author and Jane West my favorite doll. I still love observing flora and fauna and sometimes hand them to my disinclined students or colleagues to lure them into this part of my world, a world that offers me the counsel of Albert Einstein: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” So I was shocked this past summer on a wilderness trip to the Sierra Nevada to find myself in a state of fear, standing alone in self-paralysis, waiting for something to happen to me. This could be the first line of my story and it could be my last line.

Earlier in the year, I had been surrounded by the flotsam of 20-plus years of home ownership, the jetsam inherited from dead relatives, the moorings left behind by three launched children, and treasure chests of crafts and teaching materials. It was creating a miasma around a once vibrant household and it came to pass that it needed to be sorted between our two factions. Legal documents are efficient motivators to action, so like captured creatures that needed to be returned to the wild, I started letting each one go. Saving things does not equal preservation, and I had saved some things into oblivion. Stuffed animals in the attic had become nesting material for mice, art school supplies dried up and certain apparatuses were more antiquated than antique. In moments of either sentiment or futuristic need, I would retrieve something from the giveaway pile. When I tired of this protraction, peace began to take the place of pieces. With my creative eye, I had more experience as a buyer than a seller, but now I needed to recognize my own treasures as trash and turn my burdens into benevolence with the idea that some possessions, once beloved and a source of pleasure, should now find joy in another home.

It started with Judy who adopted the electric fireplace that once warmed my kids as they played under the Christmas tree. She was pleased to find a stove for the Santa’s workshop at her nature center. Ed came with his wife, an older couple doing home reinvention in their retirement; they adopted my six oak ladder-back chairs that never really did fit into my house. Along came Brooke with her two little girls, her husband, her dad, and a trailer to adopt the piano that had become a running gag because I had been trying to remove it for six years. Juliet arrived, the daughter of a teaching colleague, to adopt my oak bookshelf. Next was Chris, who took our unused fixtures from our failed second bathroom project to surprise his in-laws with a home improvement makeover. Steve and Candy adopted my cumbersome oak entertainment center that over the years had served as a spot for seasonal decorations, gaming, family movies, and romantic nights, assuring me it was going to be much appreciated and wishing me the best of luck.

I ended up grateful for all these strangers, the new owners of my old stuff, as it cheer-led me in quitting my jobs, selling my house, putting what was left into an eight-by-10-foot POD and shipping it 3,000 miles. Unlocking it two weeks later in Seattle was like reopening a Pandora’s Box with a whiff of that old miasma. I sprinkled some items around my daughter’s new house and sold more so I could fit into an even smaller local storage unit and take a couple of suitcases to Berkeley. So what about that moment of paralyzing fear in the Sierra Nevada?

At the edge of a stream crossing, looking down at my boots poised above overflowing  precipitous blocks of granite,  I knew I was incapable of moving forward safely. Although I thought of myself as an avid  hiker, 10 hours and 10,000 feet later, I had lost confidence in my under-fueled body and knew I had to protect myself from falling and getting injured. We were prepared with emergency gear, but I didn’t want to have to use it as the sun was setting in the middle of nowhere. The West Coast terrain was unfamiliar to me and formidable in comparison to my diminutive, bucolic hills of Connecticut. Not knowing how far I needed to go, I was unable to meter my endurance physically or mentally and my resolve became damaged with words I discourage my students from using: I can’t do it.

I watched my hiking partner disappear into the brush looking for a better crossing. I had resigned my trust to him out here, but then second-guessed that decision when I did a 180 scan and my heart beat out something it has never done before: a fear of nature. And that’s when I had, in polite terms, my “oh-no moment.” A protecting force had suddenly turned to challenge me, its previously tame purr turned into a wild roar.

I am having it to do over. Right now, right here in Berkeley, and I am immersed in all the things I’ve ever loved and lost, all in a newfound way. Does changing my geography endow me with longed for greener pastures? Not at all; it is but the geography of my mind. Hello, Golden State. Eureka!


Diane K. Quimby started her career as an artist, copywriter, and education coordinator for newspapers in upstate New York and Connecticut, which was followed by many years of substituting in public schools and teaching for Head Start. Wherever she resides, she believes in engaging locally by teaching parents and children, writing and exploring art and nature. She is currently working on her third career—writing children’s books, articles, and blogs as she explores the United States, beginning with the Bay Area. She lives in Berkeley.

This essay appears in the January edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Jan. 31, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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