Naturally, as my daughter is finishing her junior year in high school, college talk has been dominating much of the conversation in our house, which of course, brings me back to my own college experience, nearly one quarter of a century ago. I know I sound ancient, and even though my memory of much of it has been skewed over time, I still consider those four years to be one of my biggest metamorphoses.
As I reflect on my college days, there are certain things I wish I could do over, if only I had a crystal ball and knew where my life would take me. I remember having to choose a major, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. Having been interested in politics, I chose political science, an area of study that did nothing for me as far as pursuing a career. At seventeen, my daughter is expected to get a sense of what she wants to focus on when she gets to college, but does she really know? The idea is to pick a good liberal arts school, and from there, she can figure out what she wants to major in. But again, will she ever really know? I didn’t. Like me, so many people who thought they knew what they wanted in college ended up in jobs totally unrelated to their majors. If you’re one of the lucky ones who knew exactly what you wanted to study and have used what you learned from your undergraduate degree to help your career, then kudos to you––I’m jealous.
I think Israel does this college thing right. Following high school graduation, there is a mandatory draft into the military for eighteen-year-olds. After serving their country for a few years, these young men and women sometimes wait another year or two before applying to college. By then, their brains are fully developed, and they might be better equipped at choosing a course of study that will serve them well in their future careers. What if, instead of sending American students into the armed forces after high school, they head to a community service program similar to the Peace Corps, where they are assigned a station somewhere in the United States or abroad to help communities in need? This type of learning would be invaluable, giving young adults an opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about human nature, cultural differences, education, the environment, agriculture, and so much more. Upon completing their two- to four-year assignments, these twenty-year-olds might have a better sense of themselves and what kind of career they might want to pursue. From there, they can apply to college, which would hopefully serve as a stepping stone to what they want to do after earning their degree. Instead of rushing to college after high school, with all the mental and financial stress that goes with it before and after, my radical proposal would give students an opportunity to grow as people, connect with the world around them, become more compassionate along the way, and then use that to propel them into their next phase of life.
I know I sound idealistic, and some may think even ridiculously unrealistic, but as I reflect on what I gained most from college, it had more to do with the person I became rather than the subjects I studied. I spent those four years as an undergraduate questioning life, who I was, my greater purpose, what I liked, and who I wanted to be. Even though contemplating the meaning of life was never answered, it was the act of questioning, experimenting, occasionally pushing the limits, and the philosophical discussions I had with my friends that led me to a better understanding of myself. At twenty-one, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science, but more importantly, I left school sure of myself and more comfortable in my skin than I was when I started.
To this day, two of my college roommates are like sisters to me. Together, we grew up during those four years, and like clay, we softly molded into our future selves, while leaving plenty of room to manipulate our sculpted persona through the years. I am blessed––not everyone remains this close to their college friends so many years later. Unfortunately, since we live in different parts of the country, we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like, but thankfully, distance has not impacted our friendship. We’ve stood by each other through every major milestone––marriages, childbirths, and family deaths, offering advice during difficult times and cheering for our children’s successes––and we’ll continue to remain in those same roles until the end.
So, wherever my daughter ends up in college, and whatever she decides to study, whether, or not it helps her in her chosen career is irrelevant. In the grand scheme of things, those friendships that I made in college laid the foundation for all my future relationships, teaching me the importance of rooting for the people you care about, always having their backs, accepting and embracing their differences, loving them for who they are, and allowing their individuality to complement who they are. If there’s one thing I would like to be remembered for when my time on Earth has expired, it will have nothing to do with what I studied in college or the careers I’ve had, but rather, it will be that I led an abundant life, filled with long-lasting, beautiful, and loving connections.
I recently came back from touring colleges with my daughter. In two months, she’ll be finishing her junior year in high school, and then she’ll have one more year left before heading off to college. Meanwhile, my son is going to high school next year, and I know those four years are going to accelerate faster than I’d like them to. Each moment in time reminds me of an ice cube, and the more I try to savor and hold on, the quicker it melts.
As my children get ready for the next stages in their lives, I’ve begun to think about mine. For the last seventeen years, I have devoted myself to my family—the anchor, the sounding board, the glue—I’ve held our unit together with love and support. Change is inevitable. And this one is going to be a big one for me as I approach empty-nesthood. The closer I get, the more I’ve been thinking about my own purpose and who I came here to be. I have served many roles throughout my forty-six years of life: student, daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, teacher, author, etc. And each role has collectively shaped who I am and helped me realize life’s true meaning. It’s about relationships and connections, like imaginary yarn weaving humanity together; without it, the fabric of my world would fall apart.
When my family and I first decided to move from New Jersey to Aspen nine years ago, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to say goodbye to my friends, who were like sisters to me, and start over in a community where I didn’t know a soul. Admittedly, I was depressed for the first few months, questioning my decision to uproot my family and relocate across the country. Eventually, I did make new friends through my kids’ school and through friends of friends. For example, a series of odd coincidences led me to a woman named Heather, who moved to Aspen a year after me and is now one of my closest friends. Prior to her move, Heather’s mother and my mother-in-law met in Florida and passed along each other’s contact information. Then, our sisters-in-law, both of whom live in Los Angeles and are good friends, also put us in touch. My best friend in Ohio knew Heather’s other sister-in-law, and they, too, connected us. It wasn’t until Heather and I met for the first time that we realized how strange it was that we knew so many people in common, all of whom, separately, introduced us. Three sets of women in three different states went out of their way to bring Heather and me together.
Close to a decade later, part of the reason why I’m so happy in Aspen is because I have these wonderful relationships. The other day, another good friend decided that she and her family are going to move to Puerto Rico. After swallowing the sad news that she would be leaving, I called an old friend who had moved there a few years ago and introduced them. Hopefully, their friendship will blossom, and my Aspen friend will have an easier time meeting new people when she gets settled.
Networking goes hand in hand with connections. Along with helping me make friends, it is also one of the most valuable tools for business relationships. A while ago, I sat next to a woman on an airplane. She and I talked nonstop for the entire three-and-half hour flight. When the plane landed, we said goodbye and exchanged numbers. For the past few weeks, my daughter has been actively seeking an internship in NYC this summer. To help her find one, I reached out to some of my friends and asked them to pass along her resume. Suddenly it dawned on me that the woman I had met on the airplane worked in marketing and fashion, so I sent her a message to see if she or someone she knows could help my daughter. She graciously offered to hire her—proving the extraordinary power of networking.
I’m still not sure where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing when my kids are out of the house. But what I do know is the importance and value of meeting new people, forming bonds, and socializing. Relationships are everything and will carry us through life. Sometimes they will be difficult and may not be mutually beneficial, but hopefully, the good ones will guide us to the next opportunity, to a beautiful friendship, or open the door to a new experience. So, as I turn the page to another chapter of life, I will keep my arms wide open and welcome the amazing people I meet along the way, because, after all, I am who I am in relation to the vast network of human connection surrounding my world.
Want to know what Aspen locals like to brag about? It’s the common denominator that sets us apart from the visitors, and to some extent the part-time residents. It’s our favorite response when a tourist asks where we live. We simply state, “We live here,” with a sense of pride bubbling from our chests.
The reactions are often priceless. “You live here? Like all year long?” they ask, wide-eyed.
“Yep, we sure do. Our kids go to school here.”
In lieu of sounding too obnoxious or boastful, we try to keep the next line to ourselves: That’s right, my friend, your vacation is our life!
Don’t get me wrong. Our lives are far from perfect. We stress about the usual stuff: money, relationships, health, work, our kids, etc. But the best remedy to clear our clogged minds and help us reset to our natural state of peace is to get outside, preferably with some local friends, and let the mountains heal us. It’s the greatest medicine of all time, and it’s in our backyards.
Similar to the popular children’s book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, the majestic landscape that surrounds us gifts us with an endless source of entertainment and pleasure. And our mountains want us to be happy, encouraging us to climb up and down them, enjoy their beauty, take photos, gaze meditatively, and just be—in the moment. Since life is about give and take, in return we need to treat our land with respect and reverence by doing our share to protect our environment: lowering our carbon footprint, recycling, buying local food, remembering to bring our reusable bags to the market, saving our electricity, and so much more.
Sometimes life makes us feel like we’re spinning on a hamster wheel, heading nowhere. Many of us are on a perpetual quest of acquisition, sucked in by our consumer culture, always wanting more. If we pay careful attention to the mountains, we’ll learn to grasp their wisdom and understand our own greater purpose. Always still, they absorb mother nature’s flow as snow blankets them and then melts; rain pours down and saturates; droughts stifle and choke; winds blow fast and furious; and the sun shines brilliantly. Through it all, the mountains remain steadfast and quiet, allowing the cycles to pass. Consciously and subconsciously, we locals understand this. Like a magnet, the mountains are ultimately what attracted us here, and when we play on them, we can hear them whispering to our souls.
It doesn’t matter whether you live in a studio apartment or a 20,000-square-foot mansion on Red Mountain, when a local gets outdoors, we’re all one. We’re the same. We’re striving to be enriched by the abundant, natural beauty that surrounds us. When our time on Earth expires, or when it gets close, our material items won’t serve us much good, but our memories, our experiences, our relationships are what will give us true meaning. Here in Aspen, that’s how we roll.
Yesterday, to celebrate a friend’s birthday, a group of us got together and hiked Highland’s Bowl, a boot-packed ridge that leads to an over 12,000-foot peak of stunning panoramic vistas, with our skis strapped to our backs. While trekking up there, we fought through a ferocious windstorm. Upon reaching the summit, we high-fived each other and took selfies, and then we skied down, carving through knee-deep fresh powder to Cloud 9 restaurant, where we made toasts with glasses of champagne and danced on tables surrounded by tourists. We giggled all the way home. In the end, this is what life’s about. So, you bet we have a right to brag. We live here––all year long.
I view life as a series of tests. How we handle these tests speaks volumes about who we are and how we grow as human beings. Many of these lessons that the Universe hands us stem from our relationships with people, animals, and our environment. At forty-five years old, I’ve certainly had my share of tests, and although I carry a few scars from my past, all of them have healed and given me an inner strength that has shaped the person I am today.
My most recent test has to do with my Bernese mountain dog, Otis. We bought Otis from a breeder when he was an eight-week-old puppy. I know all puppies are cute, but our little guy was so adorable that I, and everyone who knew him, melted in his presence. He quickly grew into a one hundred and twenty-five-pound giant. Otis was so handsome that every time I looked at him, he took my breath away. If he were a man, I’d relate his striking appearance to George Clooney, his goofy personality to Chris Farley, and his loving soul to Mother Teresa.
I was proud to be Otis’s dog mamma. I took him everywhere. He was, after all, my best accessory. Walking him around Aspen gave me celebrity status. Every few paces, someone would stop me, ask questions about him, and take his picture. If he could write, I’m sure he would have been signing autographs. Living in a dog-friendly town, he was allowed in many retail stores. Even better, I could take him to the lounge inside The Little Nell, one of the most luxurious hotels in Aspen, to meet friends for a cocktail and a snack, and where he was treated like royalty with complimentary treats and fresh water.
Otis was my perfect hiking buddy. I spent a few days a week––rain, snow, or sun––with him by side, exercising together in nature. In the summer months, dogs are allowed on the Silver Queen gondola on Aspen Mountain, so Otis and I would trek up the arduous trail, one of the most grueling workouts in town, and then we’d ride down the gondola, both of us joyfully exhausted.
Then one day, our active life together came to a sudden halt. His back hips had given out on him. I had never had a Bernese mountain dog before. I knew they didn’t have a long life span, but that wasn’t something I spent too much time thinking about. Despite his debilitating condition, he was alert and happy, so putting him down wasn’t something I considered. Since surgery didn’t seem like viable option at his age, I did some research online and decided to buy him a doggy wheelchair. I imagined that it would solve all our problems, picturing in my mind the two of us frolicking around town, walking around the block, maybe even hiking together again.
As soon as the wheelchair arrived, I worked tirelessly helping him get used to it and feeling comfortable. I didn’t realize how challenging this task would be, but I was determined to not give up, even though we had some scary and upsetting incidents. One time, the left wheel went over a large rock and flipped him over. Getting him out wasn’t easy, and although he wasn’t hurt, he was shaking violently afterward. I waited a day or two and tried it again. We slowly made a little more progress. Feeling more confident after he made it up and down the driveway one afternoon, I ran up the steps to our house and left him alone for a moment. When he saw me leave, he tried to follow me. Big mistake. He fell backward. After I frantically unlatched the wheelchair and helped him out, we were both stressed and unnerved.
I tried to give him some time off from the wheelchair, but he could barely walk outside to relieve himself. If I held onto his back hips for support, I could get him out. Struggling to get into a pooping position, he sometimes collapsed in it, and the poop would get smeared into his long fur. This meant I would have to wash him, and he wasn’t too fond of me spraying the hose up his butt to clean out the area. But again, I was not going to give up on my boy. I was going to keep trying, determined to get him moving in that wheelchair, hoping to give him some semblance of freedom and happiness in his last few years. I thought of his situation as a test—for me, not for him. And I was going to pass the test no matter what. Soon enough, things started to look better. I was taking him a little farther every day in the wheelchair, until we encountered a new issue: his back paws were dragging so badly on the pavement that he had developed bloody sores. To remedy the situation, I bought him booties, which he didn’t like to wear, but at least they did a good job of protecting his paws. Soon enough, I managed to get him around the block. It felt like a miracle. His life seemed to be improving. At least that’s what I told myself.
He could no longer walk at all, unless he was using the wheelchair. In the house, he was confined to a small corner on the lower level, near an outside door. He couldn’t even move positions when lying down. Lifting him into the wheelchair was giving me tremendous back pain. But I had no choice. I had to help him. Sometimes when I would pull him into the wheelchair in the morning, he would defecate on himself. Yet still, I wasn’t giving up on Otis. Meanwhile, he had a horrific odor coming from his body. At first, I assumed it was because he hadn’t been properly groomed in a long time and he probably still had poop clumped into his fur. I tried cutting his matted hair, and I bathed his backside as best I could. For the next few days, the smell was getting progressively worse. Suddenly, it dawned on me: the vile odor wasn’t from his fur, it was coming from a bad cut on his lower hip. I had to get him to the vet ASAP.
Upon arriving at the vet, the staff helped me carry my massive Berner into the examining room on a stretcher. The doctor shaved the area around his wound, revealing a massive green and puss filled laceration. I was told that I would need to dress it and treat it a few times a day for the next few months to cure the infection. No big deal, I thought. But then, the vet pointed out that putting him into the wheelchair was probably pulling on the wound, which would make it more difficult to heal. She then suggested, in a soft and kind voice, that I might want to consider euthanizing him.
The timing, of course, was my decision, and she in no way wanted to pressure me. Nonetheless, her words felt like a knife slicing my heart in two. I asked if we could put him into the wheelchair to assess whether the back strap was adding further damage to the wound. Thankfully, when we got him in it, he seemed okay. The veterinarian left me alone for a few minutes to call my husband. While I was on the phone with him, I watched Otis moving around the room uncomfortably in his wheelchair, his back legs dragging, the infection oozing. It was in that moment that I realized letting him go would be more humane than stubbornly believing I should never give up. I made the appointment for the following morning.
My husband, kids, and I spent our last night with Otis cuddling, crying, kissing, crying some more, and hugging him as we all fell asleep on the floor by his side. With a heavy heart, we woke up the next day and placed him in his wheelchair for the last time. I watched him walk up and down our lawn, eating snow. From his front side, he looked healthy, alert, and as handsome as ever. His back side told a different story. For the past few months, I had believed I was being tested. I had convinced myself that with perseverance and faith I would pass the test. But maybe the test wasn’t about how strong I needed to be; maybe it was about learning when to let go. Nothing is forever. And letting go is part of the natural cycle of life. I was so blinded by my determination to help Otis that I couldn’t see the truth. He was staying alive, suffering in that wheelchair for me. As much as it pained me to make the decision to euthanize Otis, I knew it was the right thing to do. He had no quality of life left.
The wound in my heart is still fresh and open as I write this post; although, when I close my eyes, I see Otis vividly––walking in front of me, no longer in a wheelchair. He’s running into my arms, filling me with his boundless affection. I hold him. I kiss him. I thank him for giving me what he came here to teach me: unconditional love and the foresight to know that letting go is also a gift.
Years ago, I taught eighth grade. One morning before the students arrived, I stopped in the bathroom. My mother always told me to put toilet paper on the seat of a public toilet seat before sitting on it. So, as usual, I did. After relieving myself, I pulled my pants up, and unbeknownst to me, the toilet paper came up too, hanging from my pants like a tail.
Strutting through the hallway toward my class, I noticed kids giggling when I passed them, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Word spread quickly, and by the time I made it to my classroom, everyone knew about the teacher with the toilet paper sticking out of her pants. Needless to say, my students could not focus when I told them to simmer down after the bell rang. Finally, someone raised their hand and said, “Mrs. Gurtman, you might want to go back to the bathroom!”Hearing this, I instinctively knew. Reaching behind my back, I pulled the long wad of toilet paper out as fast as I could and threw it into the trash. My face turned the color of an atomic fireball before a fit of laughter spilled out of me and my students.
Somehow, I made it through the rest of the morning. At lunch, the laughter continued when I discussed it with my teacher friends. One of my colleagues kindly told me that the incident would give me a better connection to my students because it made me seem human. Had this happened when I was an eighth-grade student, I probably wouldn’t have been able to shake it off as quickly. But it was funny, and it became a running joke throughout the year that my students and I could giggle about.
When I was writing Lost and Found in Aspen, I created a similar scene for the protagonist, Hope. Throughout the story, she experiences a few embarrassing situations. I included these humiliating scenes with the intention of adding humor to the story, as well as making her more human, attempting to conjure up empathy in the reader as they stepped inside Hope’s life—for the good and the bad––to laugh and to cry.
Another important piece of advice my mother told me when I was a little girl was to marry someone who made me laugh. And I did. My husband is hilarious. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me to protect my butt from getting strange diseases from a dirty toilet seat and emphasizing the importance of humor in my life––because laughter, after all, is medicine for the soul.