An Unexpected Twist


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

I clung to the black steel ladder forty feet off the ground as best I could, repositioning the oversized leather gloves that my wet, sweaty hands were swimming inside of.   I looked up but not down.  Never look down when you are climbing a seven story ladder. Thirty more feet to go. My sons were ahead of me and my friend and her daughter behind.  Individual harnesses attached to a steel cable astride the ladder kept us safe from death if not bruises and fear. We were in the final stretch of an eleven course zip line in Guatemala.

This whole week had been one uncomfortable experience after another.  Our first night found us sleeping in a pantry in a Guatemalan house with no hot water, a barking dog, and two tiny single beds for me and my two children.  We transitioned to another home stay, but still tossed and turned in a boiling hot room on mattresses that would have been garbage north of the border.  The city of Antigua lacks almost all grass and trees, and as a result airborne dust permeates skin, clothes and hair from the moment one steps out of the shower.

All this because years ago I saw my sons were getting an imbalanced picture of the world. One based on comparing their possessions to television actors and other American children rather than humanity at large. It made me mad and worried to be raising youngsters who thought they should each have their own latest model I-phones just because they wanted them.

A trip to a developing country with a home stay and a language immersion program would be just the ticket to resolve this little prince syndrome. A dear friend agreed to go and to bring her daughter along as well.  My boys balked at the idea so I offered the compromise of ending the trip with a fancy hotel and then added the zip line experience to boot.

And so we found ourselves climbing a steel frame high in the air. I was terrified and sweaty but also somehow triumphant.  I used the same skills I teach my clients of positive self talk to get through. “You can do it!” I told myself, “I got your back.” Weirdly telling oneself that you have your own back–as three-dimensionally impossible as this promise may be—is greatly reassuring. I ascended to the wooden platform and sat down while cheering on the others.

The day after our return one of my sons looked around our house and proclaimed, “We are so lucky.”  During our trip we had seen a pre pubescent child singlehandedly running his family bodega late on a school night and a teenage boy sent around to beg for stale bread. We saw babies and toddlers hanging out in the street all day while their mothers sold handicrafts from large baskets balanced on their heads.  We heard the stories of our Spanish teachers who lived with parents in surrounding villages in order to make ends meet.  Even in the relative affluence of our hosts’ home there was not enough food at meal time.  There were positive experiences as well: The people were friendly and kind, the city was beautiful, with ancient churches and Spanish architecture.

We returned gloriously awake to the lifestyle we take for granted. The washing machine was praise worthy. A trip to the grocery store: exquisite. The backyard so lovely I could kiss each tulip.

I am trying to hold on to these lessons about unearned good fortune and gratitude.  So in the end, it turns out the trip was at least as much for me as it was for my children.

Slow Learner


by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW, MSW

I am not a fast learner.  I make mistakes and suffer consequences and then just to be sure to get that particular lesson through my thick skull I go ahead and make the same or a fractionally different mistake all over again.  It would be nice if this were limited to unimportant areas, say the proper elocution of African bush speak…but no.

When I was in high school I bought my first nice car. It was a dark blue Isuzu Impulse purchased from a used car lot. It had a kicking stereo system and sleek lines and I fell in love the moment I saw it. The Isuzu made me feel like a James Bond girl, dangerous and exotic. In fact the Isuzu was dangerous, but not in a sexy way. More like a trying-to-kill-me way.

Unbeknownst to me, it had been totaled in an accident by the previous owner.  (Things I didn’t know then: always ask “has this car been in an accident?”)  It had rear wheel drive and fat tires which caused it to fishtail wildly in rain or snow, two weather conditions which were steady in Minnesota. The tires were bald. The windshield wipers: nubs. The defogger barely made two ovals to squint through.

Then there were the problems that had nothing to do with the car: I didn’t trust auto mechanics and thought their advice about oil changes and maintenance schedules were a scam. I’d like to say this was just a rookie mistake but the Izuzu was my second car; my first one having been an even more mechanically impaired ‘69 Pontiac Sunbird.  I never got the oil changed, never had the coolant flushed or the battery replaced or the timing belt serviced. I drove my car in complete and utter neglect, getting it towed in to the mechanic for service only when it wouldn’t start.  And I did the same thing to the next car after that…As well as the next three cars.  I went through six cars and was thirty years old before I finally learned to track oil changes and schedule preventative maintenance.

In my work with clients I am struck by how impatient we can be with ourselves, with our learning process, with how easy it is to fall into self judgment and self criticism. It can be achingly painful to see the results of our mistakes, the opportunities lost, the connections broken, the sense of ease within our own lives that we all long for, unrealized.  Our pace of change never matches our impatient demand for it.

But if even I, slow learner that I am, can take care of a car, a mute, inanimate and uninteresting object, consider how much more fascinating and verbal and multifaceted humans are compared to cars, and know this: we can all learn how to take better care of ourselves.  We are all of us worth it.