Monday, March 31, 2014

"I'm Going to the Peace Corps, Dad"

I have written a lot this month about my childhood, stories from my years in West Point, New York; Savannah, Georgia; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; and Leavenworth, Kansas.  Today, on the last day of the month, I look back to see how far I've traveled.  I am surprised at how much I remember, how many details I can still feel if I stop, close my eyes on today, and open them to two decades ago when I was a happy-go-lucky, child-of-married-parents kid.

My childhood definitely came to a screeching halt the day--the moment--when my mother took me to lunch to tell me that she and my dad were divorcing.  But I wasn't ready for adulthood.  I was 17.  Even though that day, Martin Luther King's Day in 1994, was on the homestretch of my senior year in high school, I wasn't ready to grow up.  I fled high school, my parents, and all that I knew to spend four years at Seattle University, a small, supportive school where I found my niche in student government and academics.  Still, I was uneasy about my relationship with my parents, both of whom remarried just two years after the divorce, after my sophomore year.  (When people asked me what I was doing that summer, I joked: "Become an alcoholic."  It was a tasteless joke, but I knew how tempting it was to numb the anger and hurt and jealousy with something easy and cheap like alcohol.)

After college I spent 6 months volunteering in Calcutta, India, and traveling around India.  The flight alone was significant: a long, international trip from my home, a smugly developed country, to one of the poorest areas of a still-developing country. It was the beginning of the separation between my kid self and my adult self, and it was where I began to emotionally heal from my parents' divorce.  Being around people with so little made me realize how much I had.  My richness, not just financially, smacked me in the face.

After I got home from India and thoroughly showered off the grime of Calcutta and diseases to which I had been exposed, being careful to keep in me the joys and sorrows experienced, I had a number of odd jobs as I applied to the Peace Corps.  It was around this time that I began to think of myself as a real adult.  Of course, irony is involved...I was living off and on with my mother and her husband at the time!  But repairing that important relationship was of great solace to me and helped me ground myself before launching off once again.

I went to lunch with my dad (clearly, my family discusses important things while eating lunch) while out in Washington State, teaching campers how to ride horses at an electricity-free camp in Stenwood.  He sat across from me.  My dad, my hero, my big supporter and cheerleader.  My dad, an Army general, self-proclaimed president of the ogre club (consisting of guys with daughters who wanted to keep them safe from Everything).

"I'm going to the Peace Corps, Dad," I said.  He stopped chewing.  When I said I wanted to go to Africa, he had to put his fork down.*

It was at this very moment that I started walking across the bridge to my own adulthood.  It was at this moment that I stopped asking him (and everyone else) what he thought about every little move I was going to make.  It was at this moment that I took into my own hands life's big decisions, including the ubiquitous "what's next?" question when you're a career-less young adult.

On the last day of the month, the last day of our challenge, I'm so grateful for this March and the lessons I learned walking through my own childhood.  But I know that there is still plenty of steps to take if I take the time to go back and walk over that bridge to adulthood again, appreciating again the challenges and joys, the times I tripped and the times I soared.




*  He recovered quickly.  He was able to finish his lunch.  I've been lucky to have such great parents, even though they are divorced.  My dad was worried about me going to Africa (I actually ended up going to much-safer Thailand, which was not yet full of protests like it is today, where he went for work and I served as his translator...how cool is that?!)  He has always signed his letters to me, wherever I am, "I'm proud of you, Kate.  Of the person you are, and the person you are becoming."


Sunday, March 30, 2014

SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Meet & Greet...and Mount Rushmore

Yesterday I got to put on my children's book author cap and attend the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Meet and Greet.  It was just a few miles from my house and just a few hours in the afternoon, and I was grateful that my husband could hang out with our three children for the afternoon so I could attend.

At the meet and greet, there were two things on the agenda: First, a roundtable discussion with six panelists about "The Creative Life."  We attendees heard different authors' tell their journey of getting published, how they make time for writing, and what nuggets of wisdom they had for us.  Next up was a talk about how to be an editor or agent's dream by marketing yourself really well.  Tina Nichols Coury spoke about this by telling us, via flashy power point, her story about publishing Hanging on Jefferson's Nose: Growing Up On Mount Rushmore.

I scribbled down some of what she had to say in my little notebook, but it was her book that captured my attention.  First of all, it took her 17 years to write it and get it published.  That's a long time.  I mean, a really long time!  Second, her research brought her to Mount Rushmore many times, where she had access to the transcripts of a long interview that provided fodder for her children's book. Third, the book, about the son of the artist who created Mount Rushmore and eventually took over when his father died, sounded really good.

But that's not why I wanted the book.  I wanted--I NEEDED the book--for my mom.  After her last flashy slide blew up in electronic flames and we were finished applauding, I jumped up to get in line to buy a copy of her book and have her sign it.

When it was my turn, I asked her to please write, "Dear Kathi, Here's the real story!"

Tina Nichols Coury looked at me, looking for the story, the not real story.

I told her an abridged version of this:

When my mother was 8 or 9, she, an only child at that point, and her parents drove from Erie, Pennsylvania, to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore as part of a family trip.  My mother probably prayed the whole way.  She was good and devout and holy and...well, a believer in a sweet and innocent and childlike way.  Her parents, especially her mom, was a strict Catholic and my mother had every reason to follow in her steps.  My mom wanted to be a nun from a very early age, perhaps this early an age.  She believed, as many still do, that God had a hand in everything.  And I mean everything.

My grandparents and the little girl version of my mom drove to South Dakota and finally stood at the foot of Mount Rushmore. My mom remembers staring up at these huge faces looking down at her.  Washington.  Jefferson.  Lincoln.  Teddy Roosevelt.  They were big, imposing, awesome.

And my sweet mom remembers thinking, "How on earth could someone not vote for them when God carved their faces out of stone?"

Now, I do NOT want you to think that my mother is the opposite of smart!  That is not true!  She was in the same thing that I was in at 8 or 9: an innocent bubble of childhood.  Logic and facts entered that bubble at an appropriate rate, but the facts of Mount Rushmore clearly hadn't quite fought their way through her very Catholic bubble just yet.  And I certainly was in my own bubble (read this if you want an example); my mom and I share many traits, among them being a little gullible and naive.

Of course, she didn't believe that for long, and she realized that sculptors and their workmen actually had a teensy-tiny role to play in the whole side-of-the-mountain carving thing.

But I bought the book.  So she could read the real story to her grandchildren, but tell them her own story as an aside.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Sister

I followed her in every way.  She wanted to do Girl Scouts, I wanted to do Girl Scouts.  She wanted a rabbit, I got a rabbit, too.  She started horseback riding, I hopped up there on my own horse and trotted along right behind her.  She was my big sister; this was how it always has been and, I wonder, how it always will be.


I'm tougher than most.  But not tougher than my sister.  Once when we were hiking in Colorado as a family, she went off in a huff to be by herself (this happened a lot--then and now), to whittle a stick she'd found along the way.  Now at the halfway point of our hike, she wanted to be alone to work on transforming the stick into something unique.  One cut into the wood was too strong, and my sister cut into her hand instead, from top of her wrist to the tip of her thumb.

She stood up, turned around, and walked to where the rest of us were standing.  "I cut myself," she said calmly.  Blood dripped down her arm.  We packed it with snow and wrapped it, and my father put my 10 year old sister on his back and hiked back to the car at his insane Ranger pace.  Once there they found a little clinic that took the wrapping off if it--the wrapping which had stuck to the wound.  She got 5 stitches under her skin and 23 stitches outside.  She never cried.  She watched the doctor stitch her hand.


I'm a good friend to many.  But my sister is more loyal to a few than I'll ever be.  Once when in sixth grade (me) and eighth grade (her) she and her best friend in the whole wide world got into a huge fight.  Who knows what it was about--then and now--but both my sister and Jenni were furious at each other.  Having borrowed each other's wardrobes for over a year, Jenni stormed into our house while we weren't there (this wasn't unusual--we lived on an Army post where locks on doors are for decoration) and took back all her things.  My sister was furious.  She stood over her ransacked room and declared, "I will never talk to her again."

But I liked Jenni just fine.  And so, a few days later, Jenni and I chatted about who knows what while my sister looked on at us.  Later, my sister angrily spat out a few choice words towards me. Loyalty was the common theme.  "If I hate somebody, and you love me, then you need to hate them, too!" I was caught between wanting to be my usual, happy-go-lucky self and my sister.  I did my best to choose blood over water most of the time, but I forgave too easily for her liking and couldn't measure up to her level of loyalty.  Not ever.


This month I wrote, for a few reasons, mostly memory slices.  Some involved my sister.  Writing the essays in which my sister showed up made me realize I have a hefty amount of memories in which she's mean to me, but not many in which she's kind and supportive.  The tough love she admonished on me while the two of us were growing up still stings, and I sure wish I had stuck up for myself a whole lot more.  What does that mean?  Why does my memory only remember the bad stuff?   How can I learn from our first few decades together?  Why do I still need her approval for choices and people and things?

We're sisters.  And sisterhood is tough.  Our sisterhood has been more challenging than many of my great friendships, much more difficult and complicated and...important.  I am still dumping out the contents of our relationship and figuring out how to separate the important from the trivial, the stuff that's unique to her.  The good news is that we do love each other, and since we are sisters, we're committed to each other with a bond that isn't easily broken.  So I will, as I do, take my time in unraveling and examining our relationship...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Spring Break

Lorelei has two weeks of Spring Break.  When she came home from school last Friday afternoon, during the first few hours of her Spring Break, she reported of her first grade class: "I'm the only one in my class not leaving the state."  It was mostly just a stated fact, not a whining complaint.

I'm not close with most of the families in her class.  I've got one foot in two schools: her private school, and Ben's preschool.  And then I've got Kiefer, home with me.  So actually three feets, as Kiefer would say, in three very different places. And we did leave the state, but not to some really cool location, very far, super warm location.

Jamaica.  Disney cruise around the Caribbean.  The Bahamas.  Canada.  Those are the destinations I know about within her class.  Those warm destinations seem really nice after a cold winter.

But we didn't go anywhere.  Here's a list of places we went, things she did during her two weeks of Spring Break:


  • We spent three days at my sister's townhouse in West Virginia as a family.
  • We skiied in West Virginia for a big chunk of each day.
  • She turned an Elephant and Piggie book into a play with Ben.
  • We visited my mother who lives an hour away.
  • We went to my mother's gorgeous library, and then to the bookstore where she got to choose one thing.
  • She went to an indoor playground with Kiefer and my sitter.
  • She spent two days in pajamas, not going anywhere.
  • She helped fix our gravel road.
  • She read about 15 chapter books and dozens of picture books.
  • We went to our library 4-5 times.
  • She went to "lego club" at our library with her brothers.
  • She built forts with Kiefer and Ben in our house.
  • She found old shapes that went to a tangram puzzle and led her brothers in some tangram activities.
  • She slept in almost every day.


What's Spring Break about?  A relaxation of schedules, more time to do more stuff with her family, and a whole lot of playing--by herself, with her brothers, and as a family.  I am bracing myself, though, for a comparison of breaks next week when she goes back...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shoveling Snow

Having moved from the land of perpetual summer, Hawaii, snow was simultaneously a perk and a drawback.  Now that my family and I were back to the land of four seasons in Kansas, we had the chance to sled, ski, and get into snowball fights with the neighborhood kids.  But snow also meant snow-related chores: including shoveling.

Leavenworth had unique housing for us Army families.  Usually we lived in a single-family home; on this post we lived in roomy apartments, four units to a building.  Since my family was constantly teased about the lack of care given to our green space in Hawaii--no yard-of-the-month award for us--we didn't miss the lack of a yard to call our own.  There was enough green space on the post for us to spread out on, should we want it.  But there was still snow to shovel when Mother Nature dumped that white stuff on us.  Our apartment was upstairs, so part of what we shoveled were old, iron stairs.  They were tricky to clear off with a big ole shovel like you use when shoveling snow.

But that didn't stop my parents from handing that shovel to me and telling me to just get it done.  So I did just that: grabbed the shovel and just...sigh, got it done.  No use complaining.  Out loud, anyway.

One winter day, when I was heading out to shovel the tiny back porch and the stairs, my mother and our family friend Bill were chatting in the kitchen.  I kept to myself the unfairness of life--the fact that they got to stay warm and cozy while I had to go out and freeze while keeping the stairs clean and safe.  I kept my grumbling to myself, but there were grumblings a-plenty in my head.

Just as I opened the door, Bill asked me, "Want something that will warm you up?"

There was no doubt about my answer: of course I did!  He pulled out a long box full of fancy chocolates.  I had no idea why these chocolates would warm me up, but they were a) chocolates, b) in front of my face and c) being offered to me.  I wasted little time.  I selected one covered in gold tin foil, thanked him, and took off my gloves to unwrap and eat it.

As I unwrapped it, I noticed that the chocolate was shaped like a bottle.  I didn't think much of it.  Bill suggested that I pop the whole thing in my mouth.  He was smiling.  My mom was smiling.  I didn't know what they were smiling about.  Maybe about the fact that I was going to go freeze while they had another cup of coffee...?  So I popped in in my mouth.  The chocolate soon started to melt as my tongue held it in place, and I rolled it around my mouth, covering it with milky chocolate.  It was good, and I thought about asking for another.  Impatient me then moved the chocolate over to the left side of my mouth and crunched down on it.

It was then that I got it.  I understood why they were smiling so big.  I understood why the chocolate was bottle-shaped.  I understood why this was going to warm me up.  There was alcohol inside this piece of chocolate!  This was my first experience with alcohol, and I wasn't prepared for it at all.  My eyes widened as my body tried to figure out these new tastes--strong, bitter, unfamiliar, and...warming.  As I chewed and swallowed, the warmth slid down my throat and, as if magically, warmed my body as it went down.  My chest was warmer, my core was warmer, my legs down to my toes were warmer.

I did not ask for another, but shoveling snow was a whole lot more pleasant after one of those cordial-in-chocolate pieces!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fire!

February, 2000

Caitlin and I sat in my borrowed bedroom, voluntarily choosing to shut out the country we had eagerly volunteered to help.  It was month two for us in Thailand, and while we loved the adventure of the Peace Corps and we felt lucky to have been placed in such a bright country with such cheery people, we needed a few minutes to ourselves.

Every morning we learned Thai for four hours; our brains were overloaded on the melodic Thai language that was a perfect mixture of difficult and fun.  Every afternoon we met with other Peace Corps Volunteers to learn about Thai history, culture, and how to improve the quality of education in the villages to which we soon would be sent. During this training period I went to sleep by 8 o'clock, mentally exhausted, beat, spent.  Every minute was full of so many new things; I appreciated a quick escape to normal and known.

So Caitlin and I did what we would do together every time we took a break from our Thai life, during training and over the course of the two years we were there: we played Scrabble.  We sat on my rock-hard bed and dusty sheets, with the window open so that we could get a breeze and see the wide Chao Praya River that flowed just a few feet beyond.  Caitlin was a better player than me, but not by much, so the games were good and we'd really get into it.  We laughed and joked about funny cultural differences and also had long conversations about how we were eager to help--all of these conversations were in English, of course, which was a relief after so much Thai.

A lazy, word-filled hour or two later, my Thai host family arrived at the door.  They all squished into the doorway--the young, pretty mother, the short, muscular father, the teenage son, and the preteen daughter who thought I was fat and deserved the nickname Mooo, which means Pig in Thai.  Their faces met our faces.  Our faces were clean and bright, refreshed from the quick escape into my own room, our own culture and our own friendship.

Their faces were...sooty.  They had smudges of black all over them. They looked exhausted, beat, spent.

In basic Thai, paired with a whole lot of gesticulating so that we could understand their story, my Thai mother and father explained how there was a fire on the far side of the village.  Fire stations don't exist in small villages like the one we lived in, so the villagers relied on themselves to fight it.  Everyone who was in the village came out to help.  Thin, tough Thai grandmothers did what they could to beat the fire back.  They had gathered water in buckets from houses, formed a line to bring the buckets to the fire.  After about an hour, the fire was under control, and then put out completely.  The villagers returned to their houses to clean up and recover.

Caitlin and I looked at them in disbelief and then at each other in mortification, and down at our small travel Scrabble board game. I would have felt a little better about the situation had I been winning.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Chapel of St Ignatius, and the Tension Between Comfort & Challenge

Years ago, when I took myself very seriously as student body president at Seattle University, a new chapel was built on campus.  During his life, St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, said that he had seven different points of light that were profound; they directed the rest of his life.  The Chapel of St. Ignatius, designed by architect Steven Holl, used "a gathering of different lights" as his inspiration for the space.   Created with significant student input, Holl declared it would be a design that was "forward-looking, but rooted in the past."  It was mostly built during the summer between my junior and senior year; I was there that summer, so I watched as it was built.
The Chapel of St Ignatius at Seattle University

Giant slabs of concrete were poured, and then lifted and put into place.  The other main construction material was glass.  These two things did not seem complimentary in nature; I watched curiously as they were combined for the construction of the chapel.  The angles of the chapel were so unusual that I couldn't help but stop and watch the workers build it to try and figure out how things worked together.  All summer long, local reporters and distant architects came to check it out; all were curious, and many had critical things to say.  Even those who hated it had to admit that it was exciting--the design was so intriguing there's no way a person wouldn't wander inside to get a better look.

When Fall rolled around and the Chapel of St Ignatius was complete, I attended the blessing of the chapel.  After walking through smaller of the two massive doors, the first glance of it took my breath away.  The different lights concept was incredible--at each different point during the day, the sun would beam through a specific glass on the exterior that would shade the interior a different color.

It is, in short, a masterpiece of modern art.

After the archbishop of Seattle blessed the chapel with holy water, I sat in a middle pew while a visiting Jesuit spoke of the building.  I'll never forget his words:

All year long, we've heard how different this chapel is going to be.  And those naysayers were right: this building challenges our eyes.  It challenges our mind, makes us wonder what is going on, forces us to engage to figure out an element in construction that does not initially make sense.  But at the same time, this same building comforts us.  With Holl's design, the outside sun shines down throughout the day in different ways, but it is always there to comfort us. Especially in the small prayer room, with unique beeswax walls, you get the sense of being enveloped by the space, of being held in a comforting way.  
And so it is with our religion.  Our Catholicism is meant to both challenge and comfort us.  Challenge us to do better, to be better, to become better people while also comforting us in times of turmoil, angst, and rage.

Spoken in 1997, I've remembered these words like they were delivered yesterday.  Challenge and comfort.  How much should life challenge me?  How much should it comfort me?  How can I best remember to push myself to strive to be and do better but also remember to pause, cradle myself, and listen with gentle empathy to my own struggles and worries and fears?  I doubt I'll ever find the answers, but my journey is enriched and deepened as I search for them.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Meeting Margaret Thatcher

Kansas, 1990.

We lived in Leavenworth for two years while my father attended the Army Command and General Staff College, which is sort of masters program for military officers.  While the move from Hawaii to Kansas was culturally jarring, living on quiet Leavenworth was really...nice.  The Army community there was very tightly knit, and for the first time in my life I attended public school, not a private Catholic school.  Dressing on the first day was so stressful; I chose poorly when I showed up with an oversized mustard cut-off with equally large and mustardy MC-Hammar pants with hieroglyphic-like designs all over them.  Luckily, my new friends had short memories, or were mostly fashion-dense themselves.

As was my family's habit to soak in as much as possible while being stationed in a new state, we went to work seeing the sights and historical places in the area.  I don't remember many of them; embarrassingly, American history wasn't interesting to me until I read The Worst Hard Times a few years ago.  I was a good student but lived in a small, comfortable little bubble where my friends and their opinions (thankfully not of my clothing choices) were more important than national news and presidential happenings.  I remember--vaguely--that President Reagan ended the Cold War and liked jelly beans.  These two facts seemed to be on par with each other.  I'll be kind to my younger self and explain I wore a sort of blinders that thoroughbreds wear while racing.  Those blinders keep the horses from freaking out when other horses come up along side of them.  My blinders kept me happy and hunky-dory in my own small existence as a freshman in high school.  There was a bigger world out there?  Really?

I don't remember many tourist destinations, but I do remember visiting the Eisenhower Presidential Center, located in Ike's boyhood home of Abilene, Kansas.  I'm sure it was my dad's idea, but we all went as a family.  We drove two hours through what I considered then to be unexciting flat country.  Part of my boredom in looking out at the unchanging scenery was due partly to the fact that I'd been spoiled with short drives through gorgeous, exotic Hawaii.  And partly to the fact that I was 15 and impressed with very little.

But what did impress me when I got there were the throngs of tourists!  Who'd have expected that there were so many camera-toting Japanese tourists in Abilene, Texas?!  The surprise of seeing a gaggle of Japanese tourists just like we'd seen so many times in places around Hawaii woke me out of my teenage ennui.  I even took a picture of them with my film-toting camera.  While I chuckled, my parents smartly realized that something bigger drew them here; there was most likely a specific draw that attracted them to this fairly random museum.  My mom went to check it out. My dad, big sister, and I stood around our car, waiting for her report.

She came back, animated and excited.  "Margaret Thatcher is here!"

Me: "Who?"

All of their heads snapped to my empty one.  There was silence.  I think they were trying to figure out if I was trying to be funny.  I wasn't.  And then, they all started laughing.  It wasn't such a mean laugh--okay, well, my sister's was mean but she didn't have any other kind of laugh (especially at 17) so her laugh actually was mean.  My parents were honestly and simply stunned that I didn't even know the name Margaret Thatcher, let alone the fact that she was the first female Prime Minister of the UK or that she'd been serving as Prime Minster for longer than I'd been breathing.

It was that day--that very moment on that day--that I realized what it felt like to be mortified.  Luckily I was surrounded by my loving family, so my mom dispatched appropriate "there, there" murmerings and my father reassured me "it's ok, Kate" while shaking his head with a smile.  My sister?  She still cackles what feels like a judgment-filled laugh to this day, more than two decades later.  Of course, her reaction is why the experience still stings today.

I knew then that I had to pull my head out of my bubble and get a clue.  It wasn't easy realizing I was on the ignorant side of the spectrum, but I was humble enough to know that I should know more.  At least a little.  And so, I ate my oversized slice of humble pie and...I grew from it.  What else do you do in a situation like that?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Moving Again: But Bring the Bikinis!

May, 1990

During three years in Hawaii, my family left the islands once; just two months before moving, we flew all the way to Pennsylvania for my uncle's wedding.  Island fever, where you are just dying to get off the island to see something new and be somewhere different, lived inside each of us.  My sister's first few teenager years created some seriously difficult moments and some incredibly tense relationships, and each of us were looking for a change that would somehow shake things up, somehow reshuffle the deck with which we played, somehow take us to a new place both literally and figuratively.


We moved from Hawaii to Kansas.  Hawaii to Kansas.  From lush, tropical, always breezy, always warm Hawaii to middle-of-the-country, unpredictable weather-filled, nothing-too-special-about-it Kansas.  We just had to laugh as we packed and cried our good-byes.

One of the many things my mom, big sister and I packed in the many boxes that chugged across the Pacific: our bikinis.  When we unpacked them, they seemed out of place.  My parents were both devout Catholics (my mom wanted to be a nun her entire childhood; my dad spent a year in the seminary) and had strict, traditional guidelines for my sister's and my behavior and wardrobe.  But after three years in Hawaii, bathing suits were simply a practical matter: how much sun could you get on your skin?  The smaller the bathing suit, the better the tan.  Even my (cute-figured, bikini-wearing) mom agreed.  When we unpacked in Kansas, we sniffed a few tears at the sight of these still-salty bikinis and shoved them in our dresser drawers.

As Summer cooled off into Fall and Fall chilled into Winter, we learned first-hand about the strange weather of the Mid-West.  The weather went from one extreme to the next, from rainy to sunny, from tornado warnings to peaceful weather, from incredibly cold to nice and warm...  The weather had a sense of humor, and kept us guessing.

Towards the end of our first winter in Leavenworth, a few feet of snow fell down and buried us in.  We got a day or two off from school and we went sledding with our new friends on the hill across the street.  We enjoyed activities in a season we'd not experienced in years.  And then, a day or two after the snowstorm, the temperatures climbed to an unbelievable 60 degrees.  It was sunny. It was warm!  Always the sun goddesses, always looking to improve our tan, my mom and sister and I ran to our rooms, opened our dresser drawers, and pulled on our unused summer bikinis over our wintery skin.  We lived in an apartment, so had no green space to spread out on (though all the green space was still covered in tall, white drifts)--but we did have a small balcony outside of our back door.  The three of us squeezed onto it, sat on towels to protect our way-too-bare butts from freezing on the iron chairs out there.  We closed our eyes, and let the sun warm our faces, our necks, our limbs.  With snow available at our fingertips and bikinis on our chilly bodies, we bathed in that delicious, sunny warmth.

Our neighbors thought we were crazy.  We were!






Saturday, March 22, 2014

Most Embarrassing Moment (in Hawaii. I've had a lot of 'em)

(WARNING: This is a gross story.  You might want to finish your coffee or breakfast or, actually all your meals today before reading it.)


In the three years we lived on Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, we lived in a borrowed Army house that was shaped like a U. 435 Baldwin Road.  I sketched a little picture so you could have a visual.  (Map is totally not to scale, by the way.)  Look at the right part of the U.  As you can see, my room and my sister's room were at opposite ends of a long hallway.  A long, linoleum hallway.  Brown linoleum.  Army housing was at the cutting edge of trends, of course.

Anyway, a large and appropriate number of linoleum tiles sat between me and my big sister; distance is a good thing in many relationships (teenage sisters and in-laws are at the top of this list).  But please note the bathroom was right next to my sister's bedroom.  That's important in this story.

Another important thing to note: I hate throwing up.  I mean, who really likes to throw up?  But I hate it then and I hate it now.  I cry every time like a big baby, just can't help it.

One night, when I was 13 years old and my sister was 15, I lay down in my bedroom to go to sleep one night, covered in the thin teddy-bear quilt that my grandmother lovingly made for me in my front bedroom.  I wore a long nightgown-type T-shirt that hung to my knees.  It was a Coca-Cola T-shirt, which makes me shake my head at the memory because my family was too all-natural and healthy to drink Coke.  But wearing their logo was okay?  Hmm.  I'll leave that conundrum for another slice.  With teddy bears doing acrobats all over my little body, I felt like their sweetness could surely beat this icky feeling in my stomach.  I tried to deny that my stomach was churning.  I thought I could sleep through it.  I was confident I could will myself to morning, when whatever I ate that made me feel this way could pass normally through my body.

I waited and waited and waited.  I hoped and hoped and hoped.

Until the waiting and the hoping exploded in one moment when I knew.  I knew that I was going to throw up.  RIGHT NOW.  I got up, quick as a flash.  I started to run.  My too-big-for-me Coca-Cola T-shirt nightgown-y thingie billowed after me a bit.  Run, Kate, run!

Now, on that unattractive brown linoleum we had some bit of rug, some thin little covering that protected my family's toes from the cold floor.  That rug ended right at the door of my parents' bedroom (check that map!).  At the very moment--I wish I could play for you the slow-motion video going on in my head right now--that my right foot pushed off from the last shred of rug, my right hand reached up and covered my mouth.  I had waited too long in my cozy, teddy-bear filled bed.  I had to throw up, and my stomach couldn't wait ten more feet to get to the bathroom.

Whatever I had eaten or whatever bug I had (my bet is on the former) wrecked my stomach so much that there was a gross amount of gross stuff coming up, pushing its way past the hand unsuccessfully clamped down on my mouth. I really did want to keep it inside until I got to the bathroom.  But suddenly, puke was just everywhere.  I guess because I was going so fast, leaning forward into my run down the hallway, my face was a foot before my feet.  So when I threw up, my nasty puke reached the brown linoleum before my feet did.

And so my left foot hit the linoleum floor a split second after that gross stuff did.  And I assure you--feel free to scratch this off of your things to test in life--that linoleum floors are quite slippery when wet.  When my foot hit that patch of puke and I slipped.  Hard.  I didn't fall forward, free of puke.  Nope.  I feel flat on the rest of what I had thrown up.

Disgusting?  You betcha.  But I couldn't just hang out there in my stinky, messy misery.  I knew there was more coming, so I got up and hobbled all wet and sticky to the bathroom, to the toilet, to where I should have been waiting and hoping in the first place.

Of course, my sweet mom came around the corner and into the bathroom.  She surveyed the scene and knew in an instant what had happened.  Her sympathy and empathy made me cry even harder, because now I was crying because I felt sorry for my mess of a self, not just because I had been sick like I hate being sick.  My sweet mom, of course, was the one to start cleaning me up and start cleaning it up...as my father still snored in the bedroom.  Had he even heard me?

(Pause: A moment of silence for the unfairness of life.)

Somehow in her super-mom way she began to clean up the mess while simultaneously offering "there, there" rubs on my back and getting me a fresh nightgown that I could change into after I showered the nastiness off of my sick, still-shaking body.  I just sat in misery, crying.

In the quiet night, over my miserable whimpering, I heard, "Mom?  Mooooommmm?"  It was my sister.  My mom gave me a sweet pat on my back--she wisely didn't dare touch anything on my front--and said she'd be right back.  She scuffled quietly and quickly into my sister's room to see what my sister needed.  She was gone for 20 seconds, half a minute, tops.

And then, from my big sister's room, I heard a cackle of laughter, loud and unstoppable, free of empathy but full of amusement.

Ah, sisters.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Yoga & Getting it Right

Heather, my yoga instructor, guided me into the next pose.

"Lay down on your back, then put a block in the small of your back.  Then either put the soles of your feet on the ground with your knees bent or put your legs straight out."

I did my best to get into the pose, one that was actually pretty simple, but the placement of the block, well...I wasn't sure if I had it quite right.  So I asked for help.  Now, in my late 30s, with three little kids, I'm not afraid to ask for help anymore.  What a relief this is, not to have to know everything and do everything myself.

"Close your eyes. If you can keep them closed, then you've got it right."

I was surprised by this sure-fire way of knowing whether my placement of my block was right or wrong.  If wrong and in a painful position, my eyes would flutter open automatically.  If right and in a healing position, my eyes would remain blissfully closed.

Oh please may I have the same thing in life sometime?  A simple eyes-closed or eyes-opened check on whether something is Right or Wrong?

Living and deciding and functioning in the grey is simply exhausting.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stacey: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

Part I: West Point, NY, 1983

I sat in the second of the neat rows of wooden desks--the kind that had the chair attached to the desk, and you'd slide your little uniformed body in under the desk--in Mrs. Rose's first grade class.  Stacey sat next to me.  We became friends.  In first grade, becoming fast friends doesn't take a whole lot of analyzing and thinking.  You don't think about what you like about a person, you just do or do not like them.

And I liked her.

She had deep, glossy hair with thick bangs that never got in her eyes.  They just sat perfectly over her forehead.  Like me, Stacey spent time making her own ribbon barrettes, and we both thought it was neat when the ribbons matched our Catholic school uniforms--yellow and green.  We were both in Brownies together although neither one of us took it very seriously.  We ran the same speed on the playground, we liked playing the same games, we both liked school and didn't think that was dorky at all.

Best of all, Stacey could laugh.  She was just a happy girl, and everyone wants to be around a happy girl.  We became best friends at age 7.  It was an easy friendship, like all childhood friendships should be.

Part II: Schofield Barracks, HI, 1989

As an outgoing type, I always had plenty of friends.  But after a year in Hawaii I didn't have any really close, bosom buddy (like Anne of Green Gables says).  And I wanted one.  I don't remember saying this out loud, but my mom knew.  She knew like she knows when I'm having a bad day after uttering one syllable on the phone with her.  When she heard that Stacey's family was moving from Germany to Hawaii, she called up Stacey's mom and said, "Let's get the girls together."  So those moms got us girls together.

And I found that bosom buddy in Stacey.

Our friendship still had that easy quality, the same kind of feeling you get when hiking or walking with a person and you fall into an easy step with one another.  No one is trying to catch up to the other, no one is walking much faster.  Just side by side.  Together.  And this is how we approached our pre-teenage years.

We both had total crushes on Christian Slater, but in real life we had crushes but didn't follow through with them.  We ate way too much macaroni and cheese at her house, talked about everyone in our class, and laughed.  Stacey was the oldest of five; I was the youngest of two.  Our house was usually quiet and orderly; her house was rowdy and fun.  I was over there a lot.  You could sit in one spot and witness way too much in a really great way.

That Stacey could make me laugh!  She was witty in a way I'd never be, and I felt funnier just being around her.

Part III: Northern Virginia/Southern Pennsylvania, 1994

With some stroke of luck, Stacey's father and my father were stationed relatively near each other during our final year in high school.  There was an hour or so drive between us, but with fresh driving licenses, that hour was nothing after a few years of writing letters between Kansas and Hawaii.  Letters were fine, but seeing each other face to face--well, that was the best.  So, for important events like birthdays and graduations and a few random days in between, we got to hang out.

I drove north for Stacey's high school graduation.  She wanted me to meet a guy she'd just met on prom night--Dan.  She'd gone with someone else to prom, but met Dan at a party afterward.  He was cute and funny and tall and charming.  I met him.  I liked him.  Plus he had a cute best friend--what's not to love about two best friends spending part of their first summer after high school together?  His cute best friend, Jeff, had a family place near a beach in North Carolina, and we all drove down together.  I have no idea why her parents allowed her do that--but I know why my parents did.  They were in the midst of a divorce, busy in that heartache that comes when ending a marriage.  I could do what I wanted, and I knew it.  I was responsible enough--and they knew this--that "whatever I wanted" would be fun in a slightly few-notches-above-lame way.

We laughed and laughed at the beach...I can't believe how much we laughed.  We were just responsible enough to be on our own a little, but still felt no weight of responsibility.  What a nice feeling.  I know all that the laughter and fun was amplified because my home life was so serious and dark and...just falling apart as I packed up my stuff for college, never to return to my childhood home.  I'm so grateful to have a best friend who could make me laugh, could cheer me whenever I needed it.  Or at least make me a box of macaroni and cheese and share it with me.

Part IV: Adulthood, 2014

Stacey married that funny, charming Dan guy.  And then, seven years later, he left her.  Just like that.

And, just like that, we both knew how horribly brutal adulthood could be.  But still, it's beautiful.

As I muddle through the messes of my own making and others that fate has sprinkled on me, Stacey and I talk and talk and talk about silly and serious things whenever we can.  She's still the best friend I could ever ask for, if only because we have a similarly catty sense of humor and laugh at the same sorts of jokes.  But between us there are so many common threads that go back and go deep.  We believe in the good in people, we believe that you've got to choose happiness, we believe you can't deny feelings but sometimes you have to let go and rebuild something else with them, we believe that we'll both be okay, we believe we'll be there, still laughing, for each other when we're 95.

Stacey still laughs loudly and deeply, and she does this often and with a great number of people.  Maybe the laughter means a whole lot more to her, and to me, too, because we know, as two women approaching our 40s really know, how to cry.  What heartbreak and heart ache feel like.  And we know that although there's a whole lot we can't change--and there are hours of conversation about what we'd like to change but can't or not sure if we should--we can laugh.

I'm so grateful--SO GRATEFUL, PEOPLE!--for this woman in my life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mokuleia: Lazy Days at Crowbar Ranch

First order of business: Find a place to ride.

My parents knew that we girls would be happier when spending significant time on horseback.  The first place they found for us to ride on Oahu required a picturesque 40 minute drive from our school in Wahiawa.  Situated on the windy, cliff-filled, totally green north shore of Hawaii, Mokuleia, Crowbar Ranch wasn't where Olympians trained.  But there were plenty of horses and a gang of young girls like me and my sister with endless hours and extra love, ready to pour ourselves into any underloved steed.

The majority of horses at Crowbar Ranch were kept in two large back paddocks, thick with trees and bushes and muddy parts.  Factor in 20-30 minutes just getting your horse, because finding them in that place was an adventure in itself.  One time, one of the four attendees at my recent birthday party, Kristin, who had a knack for laughing so hard she peed in her pants, did just that--she laughed so hard she peed in her pants while we searched for our horses.  I suggested, still giggling myself, that she sit in the mud so that when we returned with our horses it'd look like she just slipped and fell in mud.  Unfortunately the ring of liquid was larger than the ring of mud, but that made us laugh even harder.

Near the riding arenas was a huge, tall mango tree straight out of someone's imagination.  It was enormous and seemed to bear fruit constantly.  We kids would scamper right up it like monkeys, picking the ripe mangoes and carrying them down to the low branches.  I'd toss them down to my fellow horsey friends, and we'd carefully peel them and eat some ourselves, then feed some to our horses, being careful not to feed them the seed (we heard it was poisonous, whether that was true or not I'm not sure).  They'd slop up some of the sweet fruit just as messily as we did; our hands and their muzzles would be sticky and slimy, and smiles were on all of our faces.

The best things about Crowbar didn't involve quality instruction, though we got a little of that.  The best things involved water.  After a lesson or whenever we had even more extra time, we could ride down the entrance road of Crowbar, carefully cross the two-lane road where cars whizzed by (and once hit and, sadly, killed the vaulters' reliable, old gelding who got out of his paddock one night), and head to the beach.  We'd ride bareback, of course, and walk our horses along the shoreline, appreciative but not fully understanding how lucky we were to be doing this on no particular day, not a long-saved-for vacation.  The waves lapped our horses' feet and stole their hoofprints behind us as we walked along the windy beach and breathed in the salty air.

But Crowbar's always-warm pond was my favorite place.  This pond was part of the cross-country course at which I'd have a spectacular fall just a few years later, where my horse flipped over me dramatically as we competed together.  But this first year, I was just warming up in the Hawaii riding scene, and serious eventing was still a year off.  In the first year, after riding we'd change into bathing suits and ride our horses bareback to the pond, sometimes with just a halter, which meant we'd simply hope they'd listen to our tugs and squeezes as we directed them to the swimming hole.  Kula, one of the horses I rode during that year, would simply stand in the water, chest-deep for her.  I'd give her and myself a mud bath and lie on top of her with my head on her rump, legs crossed on her sturdy neck.  Good old Kula would just stand there.  I'd climb up on her back and make my way to her broad rump and jump off into the water.  Then, I'd do it all again.

Days at Crowbar were wonderful, lazy days.  Wearing a watch was pointless.  If my sister and I had anyplace to go, we forgot about it while we paddled around our horses.  Time seemed to look at us and grant us whatever we wanted, pausing so we could soak up these easy, lazy days full of salty air and sweet mangoes and the magic that happens when a girl meets a horse.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Forced Family Fun

(This is an ongoing little series about my move to Hawaii when I was 9.  Click here to start reading from the beginning.  Or, go back a little more to here to read stories about West Point and Savannah.)


One of the many gifts my parents gave my sister and me was the ability to explore.  As an Army family, we knew we'd move sooner or later (and usually, it was sooner).  We wanted to maximize the years spent in one place.  I remember my mom saying, "We've only got a few years here.  Let's get to know this place."  One of the teachers at the school we just started at confessed to my mother that, she'd neither left the island in her 30-ish years nor seen all the beaches on it.  That seemed crazy to all of us.  We were soon determined to see every sandy nook and cranny on Oahu.

It was probably my dad, the Decider of All Things, who thought up the idea of going to a different beach on every Sunday.  Unlike the tourists, we had a car.  Unlike the tourists, we quickly realized there were more beaches than Waikiki.  So, every Sunday we went to mass and then grabbed our beach bags and off we went, driving to one of the many beaches around the island.  I was content being the passenger in our car, and in our family.  I was thick in daydream as we passed high cliffs with houses perched on the top (was that really Elvis' house on the north shore? I wondered) and miles of perfectly blue ocean (who goes to all of these different beaches? I wondered).

I was an oblivious type of kid who left details up to my big sister.  I quickly forgot the names of this beach or that cove.  But the names didn't matter.  I was happy to be driven wherever, and I did the same thing at each beach: I read.  At the beginning of our beach trips, I guess with the remaining pout I had left from moving too soon, I drew a stupid line in the sand.  I declared that I didn't like how, after swimming in the gorgeous Pacific, the warm, perfectly white sand clung to my clumsy bare feet when I walked back to my towel.  Grumpy me decided the best spot on the beach was between two trees, where my dad would hang a hammock for me.  I swung in the shady spots with breeze, reading, for hours.  Take that, sand.
My family and I lived on Schofield Barracks,
which is right next to Wahiawa,
which is smack-dab in the center of the island.

I'm pretty sure I soon realized how silly this was, how much I was missing out on, but since I had declared that I didn't like something, I stuck by my decision, however silly I seemed and however stubborn I looked.  Silly and stubborn were better than admitting I was wrong.

Unlike me, my big sister was never wrong.  Two years older than me, she somehow knew everything that I didn't, and more.  Her rightness and sanctitude around it was an incredible mystery to me.  She always delivered the news that I was, once again, wrong.  And she'd say what she had to say with such clarity that I never doubted her rightness and my wrongness.  She was savvier than I ever was, could read between the lines in a way I never could.  I was in awe at her ability to roll her eyes, huff loudly as she stormed off, glare in disgust at my parents.  These were things I wouldn't attempt, let alone master.

It was my always-right big sister who named these Sunday trips to random beaches "Forced Family Fun."  It was her sarcastic mind that nicknamed them in that sorta-funny, sorta-mean, sorta-true way.  No amount of shave ice could convince her that being with her family on isolated beaches was better than being with the gang of friends who were at a small list of cool beaches.  Whereas I was content on being driven to wherever to sit and read in the peaceful breeze, my big sister wanted to be in the driver's seat, telling us where to go on our Sunday trips.  Now I see that my dad was figuring out the balance between remaining a tight family of four and loosening the reins to let in other influences on us girls' lives.  He really thought he had the balance right.

My sister's rightness on insisting my dad was, for once in his life, wrong made Hawaii a tumultuous time for our family.




Monday, March 17, 2014

Kate vs the Cockroach, or Stitches on my Birthday

July 31st, 1987.

My birthday.  Having a summer birthday when you're an Army brat can be a real bummer.  Often I'd move to a place and have no one to invite to my party.  When that would happen my mom would just walk across the street and invite our kids' neighbors, like we did for my first birthday in Hawaii, which I celebrated just a few months after we moved across the country and across the ocean from Georgia.

Our new neighbors, the Fletchers, came, with slightly older, always-laughing Kristin and pretty cute, just-my-age Michael.  Us and the Fletchers--that was my party.  We sat around and ate some lunch, then Mom brought out the cake she made for me (homemade-only in her kitchen!).  I blew out the candles and we piled scoops of ice cream next to our slices of cake.  Yum.  After the last bite, I opened my gifts (none of this wait-until-later stuff like today's parties).

I only remember one gift, and it was from my dad.  In fairness, it was probably from both of my parents, and in all likelihood my mom probably was the one who bought it.  But my memory gives total credit to my dad because he was my big hero, and my big running idol.  And he chose just for me a new running outfit: snazzy shorts and a matching t-shirt.  I had to try on my new stuff immediately, a habit I still have decades later.  I ran (of course!) to the bathroom, pulled off one set of shorts and t-shirt and put on my new running shorts and t-shirt.

Then I opened the bathroom door to show off my new outfit, another habit I still have decades later, and saw it.  It stared me right in the face.  A cockroach.  Those nasty creatures were one of the few similarities between Georgia and Hawaii.  I hated them there, and I hated them here.  That cockroach--I swear to this--looked up at me and spat out the question: "Whaddya going to do about me?"

Normally, I'd freak out.  But it was my birthday.  And I was ten!  I could handle this!

Or, at least I could outrun that bug.

I need to pause here and explain that in our new Hawaiian house there were windows that opened not by sliding up and down but by pulling them out and propping them up on the inside of the house.  So, as you walked down the hallway, you had to be sure not to bang into these open windows.  Not the most well-thought-out feature, for sure.  My father was incredibly un-handy but completely creative, so to get a breeze we propped open the windows with a random Mickey Mouse back scratcher or a ruler or...anything that was mostly straight and about twelve inches long.  Right over this cockroach, a window was propped up.

In my determination to outrun that nasty creature, I forgot to actually look where I was running.  A minor detail.  I ran SMACK into the window, and while I did succeed in running back to the party to show off my new duds, I really was running to show off the blood dripping down my face and onto my new running shirt.

Off to the emergency room--happy birthday, me!--with Mrs Fletcher calling out, "Get the girl some plastic surgery if she needs it!  A girl needs her face!"

Luckily for me, I did not need plastic surgery.  I needed five stitches over my right eye, some stain-remover for my new running shirt, and some more pride to replace that which I lost bleeding in front of the cute Michael Fletcher.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Moving to Hawaii: the Stalag

There we were, standing at the Honolulu airport, up to our noses in the sweetest of all sweet-smelling flower leis.  With flowers of more shades than I ever thought possible.  Later, I learned their names.  Then, I was just in awe.  One of the strangers that had so kindly scheduled this welcome trip into her Saturday afternoon said loudly, "Welcome to your family!"

My mother leaned in close to me.  "But not all of us are here.  We're missing one," she whispered.  True.  We were definitely missing one, and my heart sunk a little as my flower-induced trance burst with my remembering.

We were a family with four people, and one dog.  One smiley Golden Retriever dog named Darby.  She was four years old, but still acted like a puppy.  We all loved her too much to discipline her.  She was enthusiastic about...well, about pretty much everything from someone's homecoming to peanut butter, from popcorn my mom "accidently" dropped on the floor to our horse's manure (ew).  She showed her enthusiasm with a furry tail wag, nose in your face, paws as high up on your body as she could manage, and an undeniable, big grin.  She was a lump of love.

I moped my way to Hawaii for many reasons (that I mentioned here and in yesterday's blog post), but yet another reason was Darby.  In 1987, Hawaii had never had a case of rabies.  To prevent any cases from arriving onto the island, any animals that arrived had to be quarantined.  Some military families didn't want their pets to be quarantined so gave them away to family or friends until they returned to the mainland to claim them.  Dogs were quarantined at a facility about an hour from our house.  Each dog paced, fretted, slept, and missed their people in a 3' by 8' cement area that looked eerily cell-like, despite the fact that they'd done nothing wrong. 

My dad called it The Stalag.  I'm pretty sure I was in the minority of gap-toothed fifth graders who knew about these German prisoner-of-war camps.

Poor Darby didn't know what she'd done.  As we chose rooms (I chose more wisely this time), unpacked boxes, visited our new school, and adjusted to life with sand between our toes, Darby sat in her cell by herself.  Knowing she was there definitely dampened our moods, even though we were officially living in paradise.

Visitation was allowed, and we did visit our poor Darby.  (There were some dogs that never got visitors!  How sad!)  She'd smell us before we got there and bark with excitement and jump like crazy up on the fence-door.  Her furry body wiggled and wagged as we entered her sad little world.  We were not allowed to walk her or bathe her or take her out, so we just sat with her.  We'd sit with her, pet her, kiss her, hug her, and reassure her that we missed her.  Because man, we really did.

Leaving her after a visit was traumatic for everyone involved.  It was so sad--I know we all cried many times because she'd yelp and whine, making the saddest sounds that seemed to find their way over the Stalag and follow us all the way to our cars.  Or, sometimes, she just wagged her tail silently, her dark eyes watching her people walk away, wondering when she'd see us again.  To be blunt, the Stalag sucked.  Mostly for Darby, but it wasn't easy for us, either.  That sad place definitely stole a bit of her spirit.

Then, the day came.  Six months was finally behind us.  It was time: JAILBREAK!  Our whole family got in our car, finally with a leash and collar in our hands.  We walked the well-worn path to Darby's cell, past all the other dogs that barked hopefully that we might pet them a little on our way to our own pet.  Nope.  This day, our eyes were just on Darby.  It was time to take her home.  Finally!  My sister and I put the collar around her neck.  We clipped the leash on her and RAN out of there.  Nobody was moving faster than the golden blur of fur--we laughed and ran, cried happy tears and sprinted to the car.  We ran to get home, and we ran away from the Stalag that we wanted to forget as quickly as possible.

We put a sweet-smelling lei around the neck of our now-slightly-bigger lump of love and finally giving her the warm aloha welcome that Darby deserved.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

We're Moving! Part II

May, 1987. I was at the airport with my family, about to fly from what was our home in Georgia to what would be our home in Hawaii. I obediently carried my book- and stuffed animal-filled LLBean backpack and followed along, but I dragged my feet--literally and figuratively.

Months prior, in September 1986, a passenger flight flying from Pakistan to Germany and then ultimately to New York City was hijacked.  This was Pan Am Flight 73.  The hijackers, members of the Abu Nidal Organization, wanted to use the airplane as a missile to attack the Israeli defense ministry.  But soon after the hijackers came on board, they realized that the crew had escaped and couldn't fly the plane for them.  They killed twenty passengers during the ordeal--12 Pakistanis and 8 Americans--and over 100 were injured.

In May of 1987, my nine year old logic was...shaky.  My nine year old knowledge was...limited.  My nine year old ability to discuss probability was...nonexistent.

As a child who never flew, all airplanes were suddenly a whole lot scarier.  As a child who never traveled outside the continental U.S., Hawaii seemed like another country, and I thought that terrorists would be able to attack my family, this airplane, the Army post we'd soon live on a whole lot more easily.  Hawaii wasn't just an unknown.  It was a scary unknown.

And, on top of all that terrorism, I was leaving behind a solid set of friends and a horse barn that my sister and I were in so much it was practically our second home.  I was on the basketball and track teams in school, running the familiar sidewalks from Sacred Heart to Oglethorpe Square to warm up for both.  The horse barn at which my sister and I rode every afternoon possible had rows of horses, riding rings in which we spent an incredible number of hours pretending we were training for the Olympics, and, best of all, the horses we rode every day.  I was leaving that world behind, one year earlier than expected.

To many then and to most now, Hawaii is the destination of all destinations.  Paradise!  Perfect weather! Relaxing atmosphere! But as a kid, I didn't understand half of that.  I just knew it was far away, I had to take a huge plane to get there, and it sure felt like a dangerous overseas country to my innocent, ignorant kid-self.

Nevertheless, I stepped on the plane with a bag full of horse books to keep me occupied.  The plane ride was as long as expected, but we stretched out on several seats and slept--those were the days before passengers were packed like sardines, before every flight was full.  When going to the bathroom I held my breath, grossed out by the smokers lounging about, polluting the air--those were the days before smoking was banned on planes.

And then, our massive plane safely approached Hawaii.  Looking out my little window, I could not deny how perfectly magical it looked.  A light blue sky entertained rolling, bouncy clouds.  A perfectly bright blue ocean teased swimmers in and loungers along white, sandy beaches.  Lush green trees and bare, brown mountains stood tall.  Palm trees really did sway in the warm breeze.  Though I was a champion pouter in my childhood, I couldn't help but be impressed with the view.

My family of four landed and walked off the plane.  Between the drastic time change and the long flight, I was groggy from the past and stunned by the present: a crowd there, at the airport, to welcome us.

Greeting my little family of four was our new family, our new Army family.  Dozens of families--parents and children!--came to greet us at the Honolulu Airport.  Some of them were families with whom we'd been stationed before, but most were actually strangers at that point.  These were families whose fathers would work with my dad, children who might go to the same school as me, mothers who would attend the same socials as my mom, run the same half marathons she ran, keep her company as their husbands went to the Kahukus to train at the same time.  They all held beautiful Hawaiian leis.  Bright leis, fragrant leis, slightly wet leis that they put over our head and then smiled and hugged us: "Welcome."  Person after person, lei after lei, welcome after welcome.  The beautiful circles of flowers piled up high around my little-kid neck.  They came to my nose--there were so many!  Each was so beautiful!

May, 1987.  A sweet-smelling, warm-breeze-blowing, hug-filled start of the Hawaiian chapter of my life.

Friday, March 14, 2014

We're Moving: One Perspective

When Dad came home to deliver the news, my mom, sister, and I were already eating.  Dinner was Mexican seven-layer dip with tortilla chips, eaten while sitting around our cream-colored, plastic dining room table in the back of our comfortable, brick rental in Savannah, Georgia.  I'm sure my sister and I were swapping stories about horses; horses ran our life back then in a very serious way.  My sister just got a horse for her birthday (read the story here) from my parents, and while I was still jealous and annoyed in some moments, in the remaining the minutes of my days I was on my way to getting over it.

Dad walked in and wasted neither time nor words: "We're moving!"

What conversation we were having before was now over.  With bits of guacamole and tomato and chip still in my mouth, I started to digest what he was saying. This move was unexpected.  We'd been in Savannah for two years, and we usually stayed in a place for three.  But I was just nine, so...it's not like the track record had been long, and two exceptions were already under my belt.  The three of us froze, waiting for the punchline.  Where would it be?  The next destination. The end of a long car ride.  The place our mail will be forwarded.  The house where we'll unpack our boxes.

"Hawaii."

With that information, there was only one thing a girl could do: Run from the table, crying.  Hawaii?!  A place so far away?!  So unknown!  I buried my head in my pillow and cried.  My sister sat, stunned with the news.  She knew it was impossible to take her (older, much-loved-but-not-worth-a-lot) horse with us.  She'd owned Late Summer for approximately 6 weeks, a time during which she managed to be high on life and happy as could be and now...down she came, with the surprising news that we were moving overseas.  And we were leaving in one month.

Hawaii.  We practically spit the word out.


Funny, that thing called perspective.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Windstorm

I live at the end of a gravel road; from the main road, turn right and slow down as your car's tires go from concrete to packed mud.  The eight houses on our road sit within a larger woods.  Hundreds of tall trees look down on you as you drive my way.  Make sure you take your time, keep your eyes open for foxes and deer, hawks and raccoons.  Our house is the yellow one, with a wrap-around porch and toys littering the yard. There are acres of trees all around us, starting with the line of dogwoods and elms and one pretty red maple at the edge of the yard.  Past that line of trees is the thicker woods.  These woods go on and on and on.

From my kitchen all you can see is trees, and maybe the creek if it's been raining and the water level is high enough.  And right now, all you can hear are trees as well.  All night long, the wind has been blowing them, pushing them around, whistling through them, making them dance.  There is a constant roar outside, as if a waterfall sits in our backyard, instead of woods.  And from time to time, a bigger gust swells--it starts small and builds, builds, builds until the final whoosh, and that finale makes the ends of the trees shudder and shake.  The sound of it is frightening and impressive.  At times I have to stop typing, as if honoring this wind with my full attention.

Wind at a solid 30 and 40 miles per hour--with insanely strong gusts past 60 miles an hour--make me think.  If you were sitting here with me, on my simple, solid kitchen table with a cup of simple, strong coffee, I think you'd get quiet, pay attention to the wind, and start thinking, too.  Because my house sits atop a little hill, the likelihood of a tree falling on the house is actually pretty low.  I think about that when it gets windy like this.  When I was in middle school in Hawaii, living on Schofield Barracks with my Army family, a tree fell on a house and killed a sleeping baby.  The story haunts me, as my three babies sleep upstairs in this wind storm.  How suddenly things change.  How quickly one tree would change my whole life, challenge my entire outlook, shake my faith in God.  Just one tree.  Just one gust.  Just like that.

I sit here in my simple yellow house at the end of my solid table in the sort of quiet not known in my kid-filled kitchen as another gust makes the corners of my house creak from the pressure.  Maybe sitting here is a simple, solid, quiet act of faith.  I breathe deeply and try to let go of all that I can't control.  The wind is the most obvious of those things at the moment.  But there are many, many others both big and small.  Some that make my heart ache, others that make me furious, still some other things that make me feel confused and helpless.  Life can feel overwhelming at the moment, but learning to sit here in the quiet, dark house, and remain at ease with the trees and the wind--maybe this is active trust.  The wind is overwhelming out there, but no trees are falling.  They bend to the overwhelming wind, but they are strong.  They don't break.

video

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Girls and Horses, Part I

As any good little sister does, I tagged along when my sister decided she wanted to take horseback riding lessons.  Because my family moved frequently when my dad had new orders to go here or there, and because the Army was a dependable, good job but not a high-paying job, we always leased horses by the month.  Weekly lessons were only satisfying for about a year; once my sister and I got bit by the horse bug, we wanted to be at the barn every afternoon.  Quickly, my mother's Catholic school teacher salary all flowed into horses.

In Savannah, Georgia, we had a wild-haired riding instructor who helped keep us on our toes, and on our horses.  Amy guided us through drills and over fences, we went in endless circles, changed directions, half-halted to get our horse's attention, warmed them up and cooled them down.  We happily did anything she told us to do--we were high, in both senses of the word, up on our horse's backs, so excited to move along with our beautiful creatures.

We were both good riders, but I was the more obedient child.  And, since we went to Catholic school and they never taught anything but the truth, I was sure that that meant I was the better girl.  And, because all things were black and white when I was a child, and Catholic school sure didn't encourage much discussion on the inevitable grays in life, I was sure that meant that I would get more in this life.  And the next, for that matter.  My sister, on the other hand, was a bit of a troublemaker.  She once did a cartwheel in the back of the classroom!  She was cheeky--a word I learned when she read in mass one day with "a sassy tone of voice."  I would never do that!

So it came as a bit of a surprise when my parents wanted to buy her a horse.

Of course, as there always was and always is and always will be, there's more to the story.  Our riding instructor, Amy, owned Late Summer, an old (I mean old--I think she was 22) thoroughbred mare that my sister already leased.  Amy's husband was being transferred somewhere overseas; transporting a horse, especially an older horse, was unwise.  Amy offered to sell Late Summer to my parents for one dollar. And Late Summer would be my sister's 12th birthday present.

Nicely, my parents ran the idea past me before this all went down.  Two weeks before my sister's birthday, they pulled me aside and explained the situation, and asked if it would be okay.  It was the first time in my life where I truly had two very different answers.  On the one hand, I wanted to yell, "NO!  It's NOT!  I want a horse, too!  I'm so good, she's so NOT!  Why does she get to have her own horse?!"  And then the Catholic, good-girl side of me knew I should go with the logical, kind answer, "Sure, I get it.  Amy's moving away and can't bring Late Summer.  Owning and leasing aren't that different, and your sister will be so excited." Being the good girl, I gulped down the former and went with the latter.

And so, on April 22nd, my sister walked into Late Summer's stall and saw a wreath of gift bows around her neck.  She smiled a big, toothy grin, beaming from ear to ear as she proudly put the halter on her horse for the very first time.  Hugged and kissed her very own horse. Tacked up her horse for our lesson.

I hung out in my horse's stall, knowing very well that showing my true range of emotions was not appropriate.  As I tacked up my leased gelding for our lesson, I knew: Life wasn't fair. Sometimes that works in your favor, sometimes it sure doesn't.


(Update: In a twist of fate, a few months after I learned that lesson, over a plate of seven-layer salad with chips, my father announced that we were unexpectedly moving.  To Hawaii.  Late Summer could not go with us.  I wish I could say that I was mature and felt badly for my sister, who was so excited to get a horse and then just months later had to give her away, but...I am sure I felt somewhat vindicated in an immature, little-sister way.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Orange Slices

I sat at the bottom of my attic stairs, my mind unable to process what I saw: our parish priest visiting my very sick father.  My father lay very still on our pull-out sofa, where he'd lay for the past several days, hardly moving, hardly doing anything but fighting some battle I couldn't see but I hoped he'd win.  The priest pulled up a chair and they talked together, in small voices.

Just two weeks prior to this visit, everything my father did was big. He was a runner, and not a jog-a-5K-on-the-weekend-without-training runner.  He had fun training hard and seriously for 50 mile runs and other races his Ranger buddies challenged him to do.  He'd say yes to any physical challenge, and then ask the details. He lifted up my sister and me whenever he needed or wanted to to put us on a high tree branch, throw us in the water, or give us a break during a long hike. Just like that, we were off our feet.  Years ago, he combined his love of running and love for us girls when he ran a 5K pushing my 4 year old sister in a stroller and carrying 18 month old me on his back.  We thought nothing of the pictures from that race--that was just our dad.

My dad had a big smile and a big role at Hunter Army Airfield, and the men who worked under him respected him but also liked him a whole lot.  He was a leader who cared about them; he counseled them equally on military matters and wife woes.  He was patient and wise and was either very serious in an un-Ranger, studious way or laughing loudly, hand on his chest to catch his breath from the joke.  To me, he was the biggest man in the world; he stood 30 feet tall from my little-girl vantage point.  He was my hero.

But just a handful of days ago, when Dad returned home from a training exercise in Nicaragua, he brought back little souvenirs for us girls and some unknown parasite.  Within hours, his strength deteriorated and his energy disappeared.  I sat and watched as he had to rest between orange slices.  The energy it took to chew was just too much for him.  Chew, chew....rest, rest, rest.  Breathe a few shallow breathes.  Chew, chew...rest, rest, rest.  Breathe a few shallow breathes.  This pattern was just crazy.  To me, the situation was absolutely incomprehensible.

Luckily for my father, the Ranger doctor did his homework and kept up on emerging vaccines and diseases that his men might need and face.  The same week Dad returned home from Nicaragua, the doctor opened a report about a new version of lyme disease that was previously unseen in the United States.  Dad was one of the first.  Luckily for Dad, his symptoms were normal--a bull's eye rash, fever, loss of muscle mass.  Within a few days of treatment, my dad started to return to his normal big, smiling self.

To me, the transformation and the escape from death seemed nothing short of a miracle.  It was the first time in my life when I realized how quickly circumstances can change.  Just like that.  In the blink of an eye.  One minute, I thought my dad--my hero of all heroes--was going to die.  And in the next minute, he was going to be okay.  The realization that life is fragile smacked me in the face--there was no getting around this lesson.  And it was the first time I felt truly relieved and oh so grateful.




Monday, March 10, 2014

Post-Commissary Ice Cream

My mom gave us the gift of healthy eating--she was adamant about her two girls eating all-natural, wholesome food.  She wasn't the hippie sort of 70s and 80s mom who experimented with tofu and required vegetarianism, but she wisely rejected all things artificial.

But, she had a sweet tooth.

Her sweet tooth was my childhood's saving grace, because enough ice cream and chocolate and marshmallows popped up here and there each year that I never felt deprived.  Christmas involved plenty of cookies, including Polish chrusciki; Easter included chocolate covered coconut eggs and the most artificial of all sweets, Peeps; for our birthdays she would bake and decorate any cake our little girl heads could imagine.  Our family all ate heartily at these events, knowing that healthy eating was the norm before and after we indulged.

But her weakness for ice cream was my favorite exception to the rule.  As an Army family, we had the commissary instead of Giant Eagle or Piggly Wiggly or Harris Teeter.  This was a huge grocery store for all the families on and nearby post; anyone with a military ID could go shop there.  I remember our cart being ridiculously full each and every time we went, as if Mom had four teenage boys in addition to us two little girls.

When we got back from the grocery store, I helped Mom carry in the paper bagged groceries.  We set them on the floor of the kitchen--and left them there.  "In a minute," our actions told this battalion of bags, all lined up, standing at attention, waiting to be unloaded.  Rather than putting away our purchases right away, she'd get two spoons.  Then she'd rifle through the bags until she found the Breyers all-natural vanilla ice cream, the kind of ice cream with flecks of vanilla beans inside it.  She'd open the lid and we'd take turns running our spoons around the edge of that creamy, cold gallon, along the edge where the ice cream was perfectly softened on the trip home.  When we'd eaten all the soft stuff, we'd put the lid back on and tuck it away in the freezer, assuming no one would notice what we'd done, as if no one would notice the empty inch of space between the newly frozen block of ice cream and the actually carton.

Time stood as still as those bags on the floor.  Everything in the universe seemed to pause and smile on us, granting us this time to savor this secret treat together.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

On My First Day In College...

In my first day of classes on my first day of college in 1994, my English professor said to us freshman after outlining the reading requirements: "Start drinking coffee.  It's a great addiction you should all have."  I was a rule-following bit of a twit back then and did anything someone I respected told me to do, so I started to drink coffee the next day.

It helped that I attended Seattle University and lived eight blocks from the waterfront, where the first Starbucks store down on the waterfront still competed with Seattle's Best Coffee and a Illy and dozens of other cool little espresso joints.  I was soon studying in cafes left and right, trying so hard to be cool, trying to shed my old high school skin and grow as quickly as possible a new skin that incorporated this new city, new phase, new chapter, and new version of myself.  I drank the drip sort, nothing fancier than that.  Cup after cup after cup...it warmed my body and kept me up.


Also on my first day of classes on my first day of college in 1994 my parents' divorce was finalized.  After 22 years, they split.  Just like that, it felt like to me, though now I realize decisions like that clearly take years of hemming and hawing, measuring and sifting, thinking and praying.  One week I told my high school leadership class, "I hope to have a marriage as strong as my parents' one day."  The next week my mother told me, "Dad and I are getting a divorce."

Coffee kept me up, but news of their divorce woke me up from my happy-go-lucky, comfortable, secure childhood.  For years I wondered how I could be so stupid to live in a house with my parents and not know that they weren't happy.  I began to realize that looking for what was missing was not my job as a child.  I started the very long process of forgiving myself, forgiving my parents, and accepting this new definition of family.  I don't think this process ever really ends.


Also in my first day of classes on my first day of college in 1994 my father left the country to fly to Haiti to lead an Army battalion in Operation Uphold Democracy.  He was helping to restore order after removing Aristede.  I get that "real" war is what is truly more traumatic for all those involved and those still behind, but peacekeeping missions still involved weapons and violence, risk and death.  But in 1994 it was another layer of new in this chapter of my life.  His move to another country, at the same time as I moved across our own country, told me: My family is all over the place.  Literally and figuratively.

I was lucky to have great relationships with both my parents while growing up, and still consider them both to be confidants of mine today.  In those first post-divorce years, though, I was closer with my dad.  We wrote letters back and forth: he about the poverty in Haiti and working towards forgiveness, me about my first experiences in college.  He wrote pages of what he was witnessing in Haiti, of the extreme poverty of the people there that made him realize how much he had.  How rich he was.

And, in reading his words and keeping on going in a day-by-day sort of way, I began to believe that I was going to be okay.  I still had a whole, whole lot in life; I was very blessed.  I was strong enough to redefine my family and rebuild my faith.  Paired with a strong cup of coffee, those letters from Haiti I received on my small, supportive Seattle campus helped pull me together.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

One Strong Mom

I'm a mom of three.  I do carpool twice a day, I volunteer on field trips, I put band-aids on boo-boos, I dance alongside my toddler in music class.  I am in the kitchen a lot, cleaning and cooking and wiping up and putting away, and then doing it all over again.  And again.  And again.  I don't think I'm boring, but it's not like my existence stands out among the other good moms out there.

I am one strong mama!
But I have an alter ego.  I go to this place called Crossfit Reston--I've been going there for over two years--three times a week and become a totally different person.  I'm still up for helping others.  I've examined gory injuries.  I still dance to the music if the music so moves me.  But once the buzzer starts, I push myself harder than nearly anyone in the class.  Many are parents, a few are mothers.  Time away from our little ones is so stinking precious that I refuse to waste a single second, so if I'm going to be away from my kids, I'm going to get the most out of it.

I let it all out at the gym (called "the box" by most Crossfitters but that just seems strange to me).  One Wednesday last fall I was talking to my dad on the way to Crossfit, listening to him tell me about what happened with his second cousin who died a few days prior.  Danny had been a strong man, and a man who was proud to be physically strong.  Yet a few months before he passed away, Dad said that Danny could barely lift a 3 pound weight.  Though his mental state had deteriorated, Danny knew how wimpy a 3 pound weight was.  I hung up and walked in to Crossfit feeling grateful.  Grateful for how strong I was, today.  I had this day.

And so I let it all out.  The workout that day was simple: swinging a 35 pound kettlebell 50 times, run 800 meters, then swing that kettlebell 50 more times.  In real life I'm not supposed to say if I won or lost.  But I'm telling you: I killed that workout.  I finished first, ahead of all the other women and ahead of all the men.  One guy was close to me, and at the end, as we both lay heaving on the gross rubber mats, he said, "Next time, Kate."

I looked at him and laughed.  "That's what you said last time, Bret."  We both laughed.

Plus I wear cool socks.  Because...well...why not?!

Working out hard makes me feel grateful for this body I have.  Grateful for the three kids it carried and birthed without a single complication.  Grateful for the three children it provided milk for one year each.  Grateful for the marathons it has allowed me to finish.  Grateful for the long hikes it has guided me through.  (Grateful, too, for the years of living abroad and putting up with sketchy Indian and Thai food and avoiding all parasites, but...that's another story.)

Why do I workout?  To take a break from being everything to everyone and just centering myself and finding the mental and physical strength to do more pull ups than I ever thought I could do, or get over 100 pounds over my head, or whatever crazy stuff my trainers put in front of us.  It makes me feel capable, strong, and grateful.

And then I go back to carpool, to my mom life, but I still feel the power within me.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Writing Desk vs Kiefer Jon

I follow the blog Revolutions from Home; the author, Beth, moved her family (three daughters, one husband and I think a dog or two) from the U.S. to Mexico to start a simpler (think: more time, less stuff) life together.  Recently she took a break from blogging to write a book she's calling "Motherwhelmed," a book about how motherhood today feels pretty overwhelming.

From time to time she'll hop back on the blog-train again to throw out a question that she's using as research for her book.  All of us followers are encouraged to respond to the question, and she'll have information and anecdotal evidence for her book.

Last week's question: "At this point in your parenting journey, what are your greatest sources of frustration?"

I didn't answer it on her blog, but I've been thinking about my answer every day.  I am a full-time mom to my three children--6 1/2, 5, and 2 1/2.  My husband drives 50 minutes twice a day to a high-stress job.  He usually works out before leaving, and he usually comes home at the kids' bedtime.  I've taken care of all the kid stuff while he takes care of all the money stuff; this is how we've split it up for almost seven years.

Sometimes I feel like it's my writing desk
(which is totally cluttered now) versus...
But...I'd like to renegotiate the contract, little by little.  I'd like to take baby steps away from doing everything kid-related to writing more, and working hard to produce manuscripts that will, one day, get published.  I am bursting with ideas, I keep a little journal with me at all times in which I scribble down my latest daydream in order to have them handy when I do have the time.  I am humorously opportunistic about finding time to write.  I'll write for 10 minutes before carpool or 3 hours when my sitter has extra time in her week--whatever I can find in the day.  I was lucky enough to attend a children's book conference a few weeks ago, and I want to run with the momentum gained from those hours spent in kid-lit heaven.  There is a part of me that wants to roar with excitement: THIS IS MY TIME!

And yet, my youngest is not yet in preschool.  My little guy, Kiefer Jon, has just 6 1/2 months before starting school, which he'll be in for the next 17 or so years.  I know, I know...you realize that I'm counting down the months.  But I'm trying to remind myself to BE WITH HIM.  Savor these mommy-and-me gymnastics classes.  Celebrate the moments when twirling around in music class with him makes us both smile big.  Soak up the silly days of reading 8 books in a row with him in my lap, wanting one more.  And giving it to him.  Take the time to enjoy him and invest in him like I did with my other two kids.  I'm trying to do what all those people who stop me at the grocery store suggest to me after they remark "Oh you have your hands full!": Enjoy these days while my kids are young.
...this little orange-obsessed cutie-pie we call Kiefer.
(I know...how can he not win every single time?!)

I'm trying to do both at the same time, because choosing one over the other is not an option.  I am trying to write a little more and squeeze out the time to fulfill my dream (because I'm setting a good example by doing this as well as loving the fact that I actually think it's possible to be a writer, right?) while also taking the time to be a present mom and enjoy this little Kiefer AND my two other fun kids.  I see how time invested now, when my kids are just starting to communicate, really pays off later--and I know I'm only beginning to see that.

What frustrates me the most right now?  I'm at the very end of my full time mom status.  And I'm tired.  And I'm trying to do a little more than usual.  It's like I'm at the end of a marathon and I'm limping along, doing what I know I need to do and really loving it some days, but I don't have the energy I had when my first child was 2 1/2.  I am trying to be realistic about my writing dream; I can't make it a part-time job just yet.  In the fall.  In the fall.  In the fall.  That's my current mantra, to remind myself to be patient with Father Time.

I'm tired. I'm struggling with the balance some days more than others, but time doesn't stop, the schedule doesn't let up, and my kids are getting a little older and a little more independent every single day.  My writing career won't die if I only water it a little from now until fall, and then water it a little more and a little more and a little more...  I'll do my best to be patient and kind to myself and to my kids in the meantime.