Square Pegs

When I moved to New Mexico I had no idea how the mountains and the high desert would shape my life.  If I felt angry, irritated, or anxious, I’d head to the trails and walk until the landscape worked its magic on my mood.  With my dog Malcolm by my side, I felt prepared for whatever crossed our path, from the mystical meeting with a javelina, to the respectful rerouting around a red racer or rattler, to the wagfest that followed our meeting of dog friends and their people on a similar path.

It may have been the combination of the air at that altitude, the constant contact with the ground beneath me, the absolute joy of a carefree canine sniffing and marking his territory, or just the presence of mountains that made my troubles feel like molehills.

The kind of stress I experienced in Santa Fe was more of an existential angst than the kind of stress I experience these days.  But I’ve yet to encounter any kind of stress that can’t be relieved by a long walk. 

Winter in Iowa means if I am going to take that walk, it’s usually on my treadmill.  But the other day we had a break in the temps and I decided to head outdoors.  The early morning fog was hiding many things, the most dangerous of these was black ice.  But I was determined to let the liquid landscape of the Maquoketa River works its wonders just as the solidarity of the Sandias had.

Life sometimes rewards our valiant attempts at discipline and provides us with an unequivocal sign of encouragement.  Mine came as soon as I looked up from the frozen tundra and discovered two magnificent birds above me.  Could they be eagles?  Indeed!

One landed in a tree across the river.  The other landed in the tree right in front of me. I’d never had a close encounter with eagles before.  Like celebrities tolerating the paparazzi, they sat regally allowing me to “ooohhh” and “aaahhh” and wonder how I might capture this moment when my camera and phone were back at the house.  Would they wait for my return?

Most likely not.  They had jobs to do, places to go, nests to feather, food to provide for the family. But that didn’t stop me and my other dog Abbey from setting out every morning since then with my camera and the intent to find them again. 

We didn’t see the eagles immediately but we did encounter a chocolate lab one day which made Abbey, a yellow lab, very excited.  I suppose it’s the recognition that another looks, sounds, thinks, acts, or behaves like we do that somehow makes us feel like we belong.  I call it finding our tribe.

I remember having the feeling of finding my tribe when I first moved to Santa Fe.  Admittedly I’m an odd duck.  For most of my life, I’ve been the proverbial square peg in a round hole.  Although I understood the mainstream, I preferred the edge, the fringe, the outer limits.  This is what made The City Different so appealing.

Santa Fe seems to me to be a city of self-appointed exiles.  People who don’t quite fit in with the population in their respective birth places find the unique blend of beauty, art, and eccentricity of Santa Fe the perfect place to discover their own. The convergence of three distinctly different cultures creates an atmosphere of acceptance that makes Santa Fe essentially Switzerland, a neutral zone where anything and anyone is welcome. 

So why am I here and not there?  I think Charles Dickens said it best in The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”   To paraphrase Mr. Dickens, having lived there “was a far, far better thing that I had ever done before.” 

But when I’d walk the arroyos day after day repeating the mantra, “Place me where the needs of the community and my skills come together,” I’d get the distinct impression that meant going back to where I came from.  After all, a city can only accommodate so many gurus. Not that I considered myself to be one, but the things I learned in the desert were destined to be shared with those who would otherwise never know its secrets.

So in this circuitous pattern that I’ve come to recognize as my unofficial life plan, I found myself back in the Midwest , working in another kind of educational system, once again feeling like a square peg in a round hole.  This time, however, I understand the purpose of the square peg. 

Square pegs, it turns out, are more plentiful than one might suspect.  They are just really good at hiding out if they happen to live in predominantly round peg places.  But as soon as one square peg dares to stand out, others start popping up.

For example, this year we had the good fortune to hire a fabulous faculty member who moved to Maquoketa because her spouse had taken a job at the high school.   She could teach the classes that were in high demand and had an unbridled passion for her subjects and students. 

Sadly that passion can get snuffed right out of a person in one semester if steps are not taken to protect it.  Because of this, I refuse to let her fire go out on my watch.  Together we’re working to create weekly writing workshops for students.  It’s nothing grand, but it’s a start.

The price of being a square peg can take its toll personally before one’s contributions have been recognized professionally.  But the beauty of midlife is knowing it’s not over until it’s over.  As Richard Bach said, What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”   The challenge is continuously reinvent, mentor, make meaning, and help others recognize and achieve their potential.

Square pegs, like eagles, can be inconspicuous until you know they are there.  Then you actively seek them out.  You look for the signs that they are among us. 

Friday morning I’d just gotten off the treadmill and let the dogs out the back patio.  Malcolm barked and I looked up.  And then I saw it.  The eagle had landed. 

For a week I’d been combing the riverfront looking for eagles.  Then when I least expected it, one appeared right outside my window.   It seemed to know the sight of it touched something within me and therefore granted me a brief audience.  So it is with rare birds.

If you consider yourself among these rare birds, square pegs, nerds, geeks, quirky creatives, whatever you prefer to call yourself, please come out, come out wherever you are!  Your tribe needs you.  

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