If you’ve never stared off into the distance then your life is a shame…
By Neva Knott
Redmond. This Central Oregon town hasn’t changed much since its founding a hundred years ago. It is a typical Oregon small town in the organizational sense; there is a one-way leading in, through, and out of town to the south and there is a one-way leading in, through, and out of town to the north. There is an intersection with a highway to the west and one with a highway to the east.
I came to Redmond from Oregon’s big city, Portland, from the north. I came over snow-capped Mt. Hood, then across the dusty, sand-orange colored Warm Springs Indian reservation, dropping down into the Deschutes river canyon with the shimmering black-blue of the water, and ascending back up to the sage-covered plateau. After driving a long stretch across the res, I dropped back down and into the green agricultural town of Madras, a place that holds the scent of the garlic grown there. Continuing on, I passed the Smith Rock formation to the left, cross the Crooked River canyon, passed a red cinder rock butte on the right, and will then was welcomed to Redmond by a bronzed statue of a cowboy riding a horse.
The High Cascade Range of volcanoes creates a boundary between Central and Western Oregon. The Redmond side of the Cascades sits in a rain shadow which causes this drastic and immediate change from the Portland side thick and dense Douglas fir forest with its rhododendron, salal, Oregon grape, huckleberry, maple understory to a less dense mix of Ponderosa pine forest, Juniper trees, sage, and rabbit brush. Redmond sits upon an expansive landscape, the High Lava Plains, across which one can see for miles, taking in buttes and mountains.
This is a farm town. The Deschutes County Fair is here, ranching is the industry, and Big R is the place to shop. People here love the land, the hunting life, and outdoor sportsmanship.
I didn’t intend to relocate to Redmond. Nor did I intend to leave.
In Portland, I worked at the high-pressure college prep Lincoln High School. Due to constant budget cuts, lack of a district superintendent, and weak leadership from our principal, the general vibe of the school was increasingly dysfunctional. Professionalism was eroded. My colleagues were a group of stressed, strident, self-serving skitterers. The stress was eroding my love of teaching. I also had a personal reason for escaping both Lincoln and Portland. My partner, Adam, had died in a car crash two years prior. Adam and I had been planning on moving back to Maui, where we’d lived in 2002, at the end of the school year. Adam hadn’t wanted to return to Oregon.
After the accident, the Lincoln community and the structure of work provided me much support. But after a couple of years, I was tired of people looking at me with the unasked question, “Are you all right yet?” I gave my notice, signed a lease on Maui—taking over the rental of a friend who was moving in with her fiancé—packed my home goods and sent them to the shipper. Prepared the dog to pass quarantine. Intended to bartend for a year and sit on the beach, work on my photography and write, sort out myself.
I gave my notice on June 1, 2007. As I sat at graduation a few days later, I looked down the row of teachers, their slumped postures, wound tight faces, and bad hair dye jobs and thought, thank god I’m getting out of here.
I let go my Portland apartment, spent a week couch-surfing and saying my goodbyes, and then—there is no eloquent way to say it—it all fell apart. My friend’s fiancé broke off the engagement, she melted, and obviously needed to retain her lease. Our phone conversation about the situation is the only time in ten years of friendship I’ve seen her lose composure. She shouted, “If you make me give up my home, it will end our friendship.” My wordlies were on a boat in the Pacific, I had no job, no home, no recourse.
I panicked. I’d fucked up my life. As much as I’m a traveller, adventurer, and espouse big dreams, I also value professional security. I grew up in a hard-working, work-a-day blue-collar family in which the job is a prime directive. I wasn’t trying to quit teaching with my leave-taking from Lincoln. I was burnt out, traumatized, and grieving, and I knew I needed a break to regain sense of self after my loss. Now what?
Lincoln had gotten a new principal, a woman I knew from graduate school, and she’d been happy with my work the past year. The first line of the recommendation she wrote for me read, “Neva Knott is a teacher I’d rehire in a heart-beat.” I called her, and she’d just—that day—filled my spot. One friend suggested I bartend in Portland—I scoffed. One friend suggested I go to Maui anyway—I baulked. Without Adam, with no job and now no home there, with my friend dealing with her own trauma, and with a dog…it all seemed too big, unmanageable. I began having dreams of waves too big to swim through, of being on my favorite beach when the surf would surge, the water turning from aquamarine to a rough, sand-filled grey.
In desperation, I began applying for teaching jobs.
Redmond School District had an opening for an English teacher at the new International School of the Cascades. The description read as if it were tailored to my resume. Though I left Lincoln seeking a break, this was the type of position I hoped to find when I reinvigorated my career. At the ISC I encountered a friendly, smart, fit and worldly group of professionals and really nice, motivated students. I bought a sweet little ranch style house on the edge of town, near a llama field and the Baptist church.
On the High Desert, I encountered an expansive landscape. Open. Clean. Qualities I was seeking in my life and in myself. As I struggled to re-establish the outward aspects of my life, my internal landscape became closed, obscured, and small. I felt lonely in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been before. I photographed nothing. I wrote not a word. I didn’t make friends. That type of inertia is not me. As much as there is a line between the Portland side and Central Oregon, there seemed to be an imaginary boundary to what I set out to accomplish.
Some sort of tenacity kept me there.
Redmond is the type of place where, on a cold winter’s morning, before first light, a group of tough construction workers sits in Starbucks, conducting a Bible study. It’s a place where the coffee stand man knows your name and greets you every morning when you drive through on your way to work. Where people stop, smile, and wave as they let you cross the street. Where it’s effortless to buy local because every business is owned by someone born and raised here. The grocery checkers are always the same and chit-chat with you in a way that makes you feel you’ve participated in community.
The culture of Central Oregon is built around playing outside. Mt. Bachelor is a ski destination, the Chain Breaker is an annual cyclo-cross race that draws the state’s best riders, the Metolius and the Deschutes rivers provide some of the best fishing in Oregon, and Smith Rock is a world-famous climbing spot. I’m not an extreme athlete as are many I met there, but I hike with my dog. After work I’d choose a trail along one of the rivers or drive to the Ponderosa forest just outside of town. Within twenty minutes, I could be in wilderness, which is where I spent my weekends and school breaks. On one summer trip, out to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, I drove home after sunset with all the windows down. It took four hours to traverse the various ecosystems. I discerned changes in the landscape by scent and temperature; it was a tactile connection made between me and the Oregon I was travelling across in the night air. I shaped my life there around the landscape. In the process, I found all of the attributes of the outdoors lifestyle I sought on Maui, and I found more—a sense of being grounded, rooted, part of a bigger place than just that which I inhabited. I felt bigger than work and chores and adult-life obligations. I felt bigger than what I’d lost.
Somehow, inexplicably, I needed the lack of familiarity I experienced in Redmond so that I could push myself forward into the shape I wanted for my life. Was I still the take-life-by-the-horns, make-it-what-you-want-it-to-be bad ass I fancied myself to be?
Then came the recession. In spring of 2009, twenty per cent of the teachers in the school district, myself included, were laid off. We were told not to expect to be called back to work in the fall. I’d gone to Redmond with just over ten years of experience; sadly, in Oregon one does not retain one’s seniority or years of service when one changes districts. I found myself at the bottom of the pile.
The bell rang and my students poured out of my classroom, on their ways to another. I took a quick break myself. In fact, I pulled myself up short with a life-changing realization while in the faculty bathroom, all in the few precious moments of passing time. As I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was going to work another 20 years. I was 47, and we’d all been given our lay-off notices that day. We knew they were coming—Central Oregon was reportedly the fourth hardest hit place in the nation in the “economic downturn” as this new devastating recession was being called. There had been talk of nothing else at lunch, for weeks. I think by the time the actual day came, some of us—I know I did—felt sorrow for our supervisor who had the horrible job of actually handing out the individual notices.
So that’s how I found myself washing my hands and talking into the mirror, making a big life decision in the four minutes of passing time. I told my reflection, “You’re going to work another 20 years, you know. And your whole career in teaching has been budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. You have no seniority here—this will only get worse. Just try something different. You can do anything you want.”
So I did. I applied to a graduate program in Environmental Studies. I love the out-of-doors, nature. I had an idea of becoming a sustainability consultant, and of using writing and photography to help people understand how and why to live sustainably.
In the fall, though, one week before school began, I was called back and placed at a middle school, even though I’d always taught high school. When I explained this to the HR director, she told me I had to take the job, or they’d cut off my unemployment.
I made it until February. I took a sick day and hiked in the snow around Suttle Lake. Afterwards, I sat in a coffee shop and wrote out the details of what I was feeling. I couldn’t make it through a work-week without multiple migraines. I cried all the time. I had excruciating insomnia. I liked the middle school, but wasn’t really prepared to run a classroom at that grade level, so I was struggling. The district was in shambles and lay-offs were imminent again in the coming spring. I didn’t want another chaotic teaching position, after the erosion of Lincoln. This new upset was just too much for me after the ordeals of Adam and Maui. All of the turmoil distracted me enough that I was struggling in graduate school. And, I was losing money by the minute on my house. I drank coffee and tried to devise a plan, some sort of blue-print to get me out of this mess. The next morning my friend Kate came over and we walked the Deschutes. I stopped, looked at her and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going back to work on Monday.” Half an hour later, I got a call for a bartending job in Portland, at a place I’d in the 90s while we were starting Plazm.
In June, I returned to Redmond to participate in the graduation of the last class of the International School of the Cascades, the new school that held my dream job just three years earlier. The program had been cut in the budget shortfall. I wore the black robe and the mantle of my alma mater that signals my stature as an academic. I sat in the front row with my former colleagues, all of whom I respect and admire. I felt sadness and shame and failure about my professional experience there, and a longing for a life that I know I won’t have in this place of grandeur. I drove over Mt. Hood, across the reservation, through Madras. As I drove along the plateau, I looked at the sky. At once, across the High Desert, it was a dark and ominous grey, crossed by a swathe of blue-white. A mile off in the distance, a bright spot of sun shone through and illuminated the grey above me as it pulled the blue out from behind a pink-tinted puff of cloud. The sky’s colors and luminescence elucidated for me the meaning of my time in Redmond. As I looked into the distance, I knew that it was time of cleansing and expansion.
End Note: the opening quotation is from Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby, by Counting Crows.