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Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Last Backpack

There's emerged a de facto coming of age ritual in our house; the buying of the last backpack. It's the backpack she'll use through middle school, high school, and college. The high quality lifetime guaranteed one. It's always a better value than the annual purchase of a mostly plastic character backpack, usually in pink with the latest Disney or Barbie logos. It was nonetheless important to go through all those cheap variations so she'd know exactly what style of pack she likes, what pockets are essential, what colors/patterns she'll be comfortable sporting the rest of her life. It's kind of a big deal. 

A & E got their Eddie Bauer packs at the same time. They were advertised as "College Ready" and came in lavender and teal among other colors we didn't buy. I can always spot them in a crowd of students. They're classics. And they're the easiest to get fixed if you ever need to use the warranty. No receipt required, just bring it into a store or follow the online instructions to mail it in. (Not that they're showing the least bit of wear after 3 years.)

M has always been pickier, going through a much wider variety of pack styles, including a wheeled one. Today she picked out a Jansport messenger bag, loaded with tech pockets, in a rose print because her middle name is Rose and it's her thing. Like her sisters, there was not a lot of debate about which one, or concern that she wouldn't be able to change it next year. She was ready. She knows herself well enough to choose with confidence. Sure, it's a seemingly small thing, but it's a real thing. 

I recently sent in my old navy blue Jansport pack for new straps under its lifetime warranty. Their process is also simple, but you do pay shipping to send it in.  My older siblings' Eddie Bauer packs are still in use 30 years and countless trips later. The last backpack really does carry all your gear through life's adventures. At 11 years old and about to start Middle School, it makes you feel more grown up and ready for this next stage of life. 

It's amazing how sometimes you're standing in the middle of a commonplace experience and you suddenly realize that it's special. When my kids were little my husband and I discussed different ways to mark this period of transition into adulthood. There weren't any fixed traditions in our family we were aware of, and we didn't come up with anything brilliant for ourselves. But we have discovered that our lives are full of little markers, and rather than a single major event marking the transition, this string of small discovered coming of age rituals suits us very well. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

This is THAT Christmas

Dec. 25, 2014

I did some mental math as I finished wrapping presents this Christmas Eve, and I realized that we were finally going to have THAT Christmas. I've watched other close friends and family celebrate THAT Christmas and rejoiced with them, knowing our turn would come. I remember it happening for my parents when I was a kid of about seven. It took a long time for us. Much longer than I expected. We celebrated 18 years of marriage this year, and right up until October things were still looking grim. 

When I left home to marry, I naively thought that I'd be living the same quality of life I enjoyed as my parent's child. Not right away of course, but at least in a few years. That's not asking for much, I thought. Just what I'd always considered normal and somewhat average. But life knocks us all about. I don't particularly care to think of all the knocks we've taken in the last 18 years. Not all at once for sure. I actually just shuddered after typing that. No kidding.

We struggle and persevere, and one day we're wrapping Christmas presents and realize we spent way more than we thought on our kids, and it's okay. It's okay because all the credit cards are paid off. The bills are all current. The car is paid off and running well. We're three years into buying a house and it's already saving us $600-$800/month over a comparable rental. There's money in savings to cover the roof replacement that's coming up next month and other minor house things are getting fixed promptly instead of waiting for that indefinable period, "when we can afford it". The pantry is full and there's room in the budget to keep it that way and keep putting money aside every month for the next big thing. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is here. And have you noticed the price of gas plummeting!?! That's a $120 gift to my budget every month, too.

God only knows what next year will bring, but there are no looming crises. No big impossibilities hovering over us. I even started putting my change in a jar and saving it up for our dream trans-Panama or trans-Atlantic cruise vacation for our 20th Wedding Anniversary, and it seems possible. Six months ago I was scraping change together to buy bread. It's a strange feeling. The stress of last year, fed by depression, feels like the distant experience of some other person. You can bet I'm still taking vitamin D like my life depends on it, because it does.

So this is what THAT Christmas is. The first time I can give my kids what I really want to instead of what I found a good deal on. When I can throw a party for my extended family and friends and foot the whole bill with a smile. A really BIG smile because it's fun to get my turn to give. When I can let myself relax completely instead of wondering how I'm going to make ends meet with two short pay checks in a row from unpaid holidays. When I'm not worried about utilities getting shut off in January because I'm pushing my budget to the limit and one overdraft could send it over the edge. 

When I actually bought my husband what I wanted to give him, instead of writing the traditional 'this is what I'd get you if I could' love letter. Not that there was anything wrong with the love letters. They were mutual and lovely. But they were part of the making do period of our lives. The concessions we made to move forward into this new season. Where I finally feel that I'm living at the level of life I lived before I left home, and giving my kids at least as much as I received. Not just materially, though overall financial stability is a key factor, but in terms of my emotional availability, because the stress did create tension between us. Moments when I felt I was failing miserably. Moments when I wondered if we would ever get here. Then suddenly...we are.

I've watched it happen to others. Going a little overboard on gifts is typical, because it is so much better to be able to give. It's transformative in the impact it has on their life outlook. It's food for hope. It's a fat steak and potatoes dinner for hope that was starving. It will keep it going for another 18 years. I know very well that tomorrow may bring more impossibilities to try our strength. Life takes radical turns on us when we least expect it. We may only have this one moment of peace. So, I'm going to treasure it. I'm going to savor every moment of THIS Christmas in my memory. 

I'll be more practical next year. I'll read those articles I skipped about having a less materialistic holiday. We've had as much fun giving this year to the community food pantry and rescued girls in Brazil, as we have to each other. The balance is there for our kids I think. 

It doesn't really matter what our finances look like next year, or 18 more years from now. We'll never have THAT Christmas again, because it can only happen once. It's like surfacing for air after being under water for a very long time. You keep breathing after that, but no other breath will be like that first one. You won't remember those other breaths, but you'll never forget the first one. There are a lot of you who know exactly what I mean. If you're not there yet, keep going. It will happen for you too! For some people it does only take a year or two. For others it takes even more than our 18. But it happens if you persevere; if you keep trying and never give up!

To be honest, I'm still wrapping my head around this. In the past I've wondered at what point I would start to feel like a grown up. Like I'm not a teenager playing house anymore, struggling to get it right. Tonight, as I write this, I actually feel grown up. We're not suddenly weathly, but we finally have enough. I wanted to share this on my blog not to brag, but because I know I have lots of young married friends going through the same sort of struggles we endured. I know how it encouraged me to see others who had also struggled finally make it. 

I'm hoping some of my older friends, those who inspired me, will share about the year they had THAT Christmas. How many years were you married when it happened? What were the things that defined it for you? How did it change you? 

My hope is engorged right now and I'm sending out the leftovers if yours needs a little something to keep it going.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

One AM

The house is black, and if not silent, well, no noise can overcome the snore next to me. The air is still and lingers, summer heat slow to fade. A coming three am watch leaves no desire for sleep in me. My mind is running a marathon of errant thoughts that will all be forgotten in the morning. Waking dreams that mean little, yet torment me. Passing over old conflicts looking for new insights. Remembering awkward moments and thinking the things I might have said. Calculating the cost of a possible future project in both money and energy, and pondering it's relative worth. Running down my list of things to do when I have the money for such and such part. Second guessing my choices. All of my choices. Feeling accomplished and guilty and powerful and weak by turns. Pondering and praying. Considering and contemplating. I travel outside of myself and follow my thoughts to views of a future that might be, a past I can reform, and a hole that gapes up at me. Something inside of me is drawn to that hole. Feels that it is warm and comforting. A good place to curl up and forget. I resist today. I accept that "life is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something." Then, I remember "where my help comes from." And I am grateful. I wonder why my head is such a bothersome place to linger and long to leave it. To pass into whatever eternity exists and cease striving. All of these thoughts are nonsense, but they will worry someone if I let them out. There's so much talk about being ones' genuine self. But first we all want to know if our minds are common, or if we'll be diagnosed as "other." Then, we worry that our minds are common, and all our effort to "think different" is in vain. This ghastly jaunt through random edge of sleep thinking seems a likely enough reason why we are built to sleep through this quiet time of night, and seldom remember the work of our brains sorting out the twisted subconscious alleyways of our internal lives. Instead, I will rise and waken. I will bring my mind back from the edges of infinity and busy it with the present and the needful. I will smile and say that I am fine. And I will be fine. I will remember who I am and the world that I am part of. I will be brave and vulnerable and let a few more people peer inside my head today, lest my thoughts lead me to isolation. Lest I one day succumb to the lure of the hole. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

In all your getting, Get Understanding

It has occurred to me that my previous post might have confused some of my readers with regard to how it connects to my declared theme of Crafting a Family. What seems obvious to me is not always readily apparent to others, so let me explain. 

The older our kids get, the more aware of current events they become. My high school freshman has had to engage in the homosexual marriage discourse extensively in school this year. We live in a very liberal region where Christians are the minority. I can assure you that the hate speak is harsh in both directions. Repeating the sort of trite arguments the extreme religious right have made would get her crushed and ostracized in school. Therefore it became necessary to walk her through the process of seeing both sides of the argument. 

Furthermore, she needed to determine her own beliefs. I don't want my kids to believe in the God of the Bible because I do. I want them have their own reasons to believe. I have assured my kids that it's okay for them to think for themselves in ways that are contrary to the official statements of organized religions, and even my statements, and still know God. If my faith is real, there should be no reason for me to fear raising intelligent independent thinkers. They are welcome to question everything. If I don't have an answer, we can look for one together.

This is really hard for a lot of parents. They fail before they're even thinking of it in these terms. The kids go visit Grandma and she gives them candy. Mom doesn't let them have candy. Grandma doesn't even ask mom for permission before handing it to them. Then Grandma sits them down at the table for lunch and tells them they have to finish their sandwich and EAT THE CRUST before they get up again to go play. Mom never makes them finish their meal if they're full, and they didn't know people could actually eat bread-crusts. Grandma ignores their whining and they eventually eat everything, but it's triggered Mom's childhood trauma and associated weight sensitivity and she's pissed. This is even worse if Grandma was Dad's Mom and doesn't know Mom's original family culture. If Grandma isn't going to follow Mom's rules for the kids, the kids aren't going to go to Grandma's house! They leave early in a huff and the kids learn that "our rules" and "our way of doing things" are the only ones that matter and everyone else's way of doing things is inferior or downright wrong.

Kids are remarkable learners. They will pick up that lesson the first time. Fortunately, they can also easily handle the idea that there are different rules for different places. Grandmas different rules don't phase them, and won't disrupt their acceptance of differing rules at home, so long as Mom doesn't undermine them by compromising Grandma's rules at Grandma's house. They have elastic perspectives that can be taught empathy easily if we take the time to explain a situation from another point of view. Maybe Grandma insists they eat crusts because she grew up in a situation where wasting food meant going hungry. It won't hurt them to eat crust. We stunt their growth in these areas by allowing our own self righteousness and offenses to prevent them from having a diversity experiences.

It gets worse when we send them to school. We have disagreements about how our kids are being taught. I loathe homework, and research clearly indicates that it has no effect on student outcomes in the primary grades. This runs contrary to what most teachers have had drilled into them in college, and what school district policy may require. If they do embrace modern research findings and quit homework, they run into parents who insist that they had homework, therefore their kids must have homework. The teachers can't win. I make a point of discussing possible homework flexibility with each child's teacher, but ultimately back whatever the teacher assigns, because it's more beneficial to my kids that I support the authority of the teacher's position, than that I micromanage my idea of a perfect education. 

They can adapt. They will adapt. Mom will have more credibility and support from Grandma and teachers when she backs up their authority in front of her kids, and saves her objections for private respectful conversation later. My kids have great relationships with their grandparents on both sides, and have adopted a lot of extra grandparents, because they have learned that Mom respects the differing rules of other's households, even when I disagree with them, and expects them to show respect too.

This naturally flows into respecting the differing ideas, values, and viewpoints of others as they mature. Our rules are different, our homes are different, and how we see the world is different, and that's okay. We can still come to the table together and get along. Armed with these life skills they can go anywhere in the world peaceably, and still retain and defend, or reasonably adapt, their own strong personal beliefs.

Contrast that with the child who has been raised in isolation from, and/or with a critical judgmental view of, other ways of living and thinking. When they leave home they easily become confused by the discovery that people who live other ways can be successful and happy. They can't answer for why they believe a thing, or why they criticize others who believe differently, because they've never dug deeply into that question. They can only repeat Mom's answer, without any internal resource to defend it from the feeblest attacks. And the world will attack. Being unprepared for a greater world, they either open themselves to learning everything they missed as kids from scratch, out among the dangers of an adult world instead of in the relative safety of home, or retreat to a micro-culture enclave where everyone was raised in a similar manner and the questioners have mercifully all moved away.

You can raise your kids like that. You're allowed. And I know there are exceptional situations where Grandma's way is actually abusive or harmful. There are limits to what we should accept and/or expose our kids to with regard to diverse lifestyles. But we should consider carefully what those limits are for us. More often than not, we're not protecting, but passing on our small mindedness and our fears to our children. We live in micro-culture enclaves ourselves and it's hard to venture out into that big scary world that will attack our beliefs. It's HARD. And it's okay to venture out slowly. It's even better to take a friend with you so you can process all the diversity you'll find out there. 

No matter how hard it is, I recommend you begin as soon as possible. The risk of losing your adult, or even teen children is high. Who do you think they will blame when they reach their existential crisis and look back at the little ideological box they grew up in but never fully understood? I've heard the sob stories. Parents who have no idea where they went wrong, because they never connected their own isolating behavior with their child being unprepared to leave the nest. Because, "they were such good kids until they went to college." While I was growing up I heard Christians say that we shouldn't send our kids to college because it will corrupt them. This was not a whisper through the church, but a loud outcry. I'm not the least bit surprised that a common descriptor of Christians in the media today is "ignorant." 

I'm not just speaking to Christians. The desire to isolate and surround ourselves with like minds is universal. All of us tend toward it. Politicians take advantage of it. Divided we are easily conquered. It takes a deliberate decision to reach outside of our micro-culture and try to understand someone different's point of view. But every time we do, we empower ourselves. My kids have been taught in school about an emotional toolbox they have for dealing with conflict. I believe UNDERSTANDING is a power tool for those who would like to impact the world for the better. I'm equipping my kids with power tools!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thoughts on Freedom of Religion and the Right to Discriminate

A fellow Mensan posed a question at lunch today that got me thinking. I'll have to paraphrase because I don't remember her exact words, but she asked why religion is the only area in which we still allow and even protect the right to discriminate/hate. It's a fair question. There is a lot of hateful discriminatory rhetoric that gets tossed around in the name of religion. But at the end of the day, no matter how many legal challenges are presented, we all submit to the rule of law. If someone goes crazy and commits a truly violent act in the name of any religion, the leaders of that faith (residing inside our borders at least) are quick to condemn them as lunatics. 

The freedom of religion that we enjoy is one of the first inalienable rights, granted to all mankind by God, acknowledged in law for us by our nations founders. A predominantly Christian group of men who opened every meeting with prayer to God for wisdom, amazingly—given the current public view of Christians— believed their God favored religious freedom over church dominion. This is still a revolutionary idea in many parts of the world. Since the founding of our nation there has been a seemingly unending stream of religious genocides taking place outside our borders. They're still taking place today. In many places around the world, a person may only change their religion at the risk of their life. Governments enforce religions on their people, and control of democracies is fought over with religious fervor, because winning puts your religion in control. Contrary to common belief, America is not a democracy where the (potentially religious) majority rules. We are a representative republic where the law rules.

Whatever debate takes place over the outcomes of our Supreme Court rulings, I feel reasonably confident that our justices will ultimately place the law over their personal religious convictions. I feel confident that they will eventually strike down any law put forth by the legislature that seeks to suppress the free exercise of any religion. They may wish they lived in a more religious and/or moral culture, we don't know all their personal thoughts on the matter, but they understand that the level of governmental stability we enjoy is due in large part to this enforced acceptance of the religious freedoms of people we disagree with, or even vehemently oppose.

The tricky part comes when civil regulation begins to conflict with our religious beliefs. For instance, it's seems right that a religious institution be able to prefer hiring members of their religion to work within their institution. But in the general marketplace, hiring discrimination based on religion is not acceptable. More recently we are facing the question of whether a business that provides services for what they see as a religious ceremony, a wedding, must provide the same services for what a potential customer sees as a civil ceremony. You may ask what difference it makes to a business getting paid for their services, but weddings require the services of many artistic people, and artists tend to feel a connection to their craft and their clients to the degree that their willingness to provide services is tantamount to an endorsement of the event. If their religious beliefs do not allow them to endorse the event, the inability to discriminate in choosing their customers becomes a serious moral quandary for them. 

Many businesses have posted their "right to refuse service to anyone," but know they would still face serious legal consequences for denying service based on race, gender, or disability. Sexual preference seems like it shouldn't matter either. But while a baker, even one with those sort of artistic sensibilities, should have no problem selling a birthday cake to a homosexual, a wedding cake may become a sticky point with their religion. How much do we protect their right to discriminate according to their faith? Can the rule of law require them to do something that violates their personal religious beliefs? Should the government be allowed to force a person to commit what is a sin in their own eyes? Does their refusal to provide the services requested really violate the civil rights of their customer? Doesn't it seem a little different from providing equal access to bathrooms and bus seats? Is a wedding cake crafted by that particular baker an essential service to which they have a civil right? Are photographs by that particular photographer a civil right? Are vendors who hold such strong religious views so numerous that it becomes at all difficult to find another who is willing? Most of these types of vendors are allowed to discriminate based on not liking the customer, or just not wanting to work for them. But if they admit a moral quandary in making that decision, they can be sued. Does that seem reasonable to anyone? Would anyone want to enlist the services of a vendor who feels coerced by the law into providing services for their wedding?

I don't have satisfactory answers for all those questions. Answers that will satisfy everyone probably don't exist. But I don't feel overwhelmed or disgusted by religious conflict in America. I feel encouraged by the active discourse. It's amazing that we're to the point where we're having this discourse when governments in other countries, for religious reasons, still allow women to be stoned for driving a car and endorse killing a homosexual on sight. For more than 200 years religiously diverse Americans have managed to work out our differences and stay on a steady course of increasing grace toward our fellow humans. That is an immense achievement. I'm confident it will continue. 

Honestly, hateful religious rhetoric from any group doesn't offend me. Even though I'm personally Pentecostal (a branch of Protestant), and am often saddened to see people saying abhorrent things in the name of Christ, I am not offended. Firstly, the Bible denies me the right to be offended. It denies me the right to judge others in any way. I am only to keep myself holy. Secondly, the Bible is very clear that if I don't forgive others, I will not be forgiven. Thirdly, it equates hatred to murder, and as a follower of Christ, I can expect to ultimately be held accountable for my thoughts as much as my words and actions. (Non-believers, having no restrictions to your judgement, can take comfort in the knowledge that their own religion condemns the "Christian" haters.) Lastly, it makes the identification of true followers of Christ quite clear; we will be known by our love. 

Adhering to that standard keeps me quite occupied, as I am required to love my enemies as well as my friends and fellow Christians, regardless of whether or not or how they have sinned. An assignment Christ understood to be so profoundly difficult for anyone, that we are told the ability to fulfill it, that degree of love, comes as a gift from the Holy Spirit, because we couldn't do it in our own ability. And really, I don't think we can. How much peace could mankind realistically achieve without this side of the religious rhetoric? Maybe we should think more about that and ignore the hate speak. Perhaps we should take the internet mantra to heart and not feed the trolls irl.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Seven is Magic

Seven is magic. Looking back, I realize I had some forewarning of this in the form of a picture book by the same title. It was brought to my attention by the school librarian, an effervescent woman who resembled a twenty-something Mrs. Claus. She read books  upside down, and her voice was a lyrical bridge between reality and story-land. I idolized her and read everything she gave me with an intensity that increased its impact. Whether that book influenced my experience or just declared a simple universal truth, I cannot tell. I turned seven in mid-April, and school let out for summer vacation near the end of May. By then, the magic was already in motion.

Every summer, some contingent of my family went to visit my paternal grandparents in California. My mom must have had a part-time job that year because she stayed behind with my older sister and me, while Dad took the three boys south and left them there for the duration. It's the first summer I remember staying home. I was blissfully alone with my imagination, free to roam the small fishing town of Petersburg, Alaska, during its bustling busy season.

That still amazes me. While it's true that everyone in town knew I was the police sergeant’s daughter, I can't imagine giving my own daughters that kind of liberty. And my imagination is pretty good. We moved away from the island when I was ten, but I moved back for two years as an adult, and I could remember the things I had imagined there, better than I could remember reality.

My body also remembered the place. I felt in harmony with my surroundings in a way that I've never felt anywhere else. The constant overcast of clouds and light drizzle of rain were not things that registered as discomforts. They scrubbed the air and kept it soft and moist. Every drawn breath felt like I was taking in an elixir of health.

My ears opened to the silence and I may have travelled back in time. I could hear the squishing of my rain boots in the muck, the splash of a frog jumping into a muskeg hole, the distant buzz of a float plane taking off or landing, the sound of my own breathing...even my own heartbeat thudding loudly in my ears, because, behind each distinct noise was the vast quietude of nothing. A thousand miles of nothing. No low hum of traffic or even of insects. Profound isolation. A quiet so reverent you are loathe to break it with the sounds of your own movement, so you move as quietly as you can as you step off the end of a trail out into nowhere, every step an adventure into new, uncharted territory.

The first place my young feet carried me was the trail up to the senior housing where my maternal grandparents lived. My grandma is more than ten years younger than my grandpa, and she voluntarily helped care for and encourage the more elderly residents. She carved a poultry yard out of the muskeg at one end of the building so they could enjoy feeding breadcrumbs to ducks and geese.

A few of my summer days were spent visiting the other residents with her and learning how to sew a patchwork quilt on her machine. The orange and brown polyester double knits, leftover from the seventies, fit right in on my brothers’ beds. She backed them with peach cotton twin flat sheets and tied them with yarn. Over her decade of residence in Petersburg, she taught numerous women to quilt, and started a longstanding tradition in town. Some of her students became quilt artists, but she was always a practical quilter, creating utilitarian quilts from leftover scraps in the prettiest patterns she could. She prayed over each piece as she worked, creating spiritual and material coverings for her descendants, the transient, and more missionaries than we can count.

At seven, I knew where to go to find what interested me. I knew what I can eat and what I must leave alone. I knew what kind of stream I must find to drink from and how to be careful of bears and other animals that might be getting a drink, too. I wandered off the trail often, with a five gallon bucket and a stick. I dipped the bucket in a muskeg hole to fill it halfway with murky water, then set about catching frogs. When I tired of the frogs, I let them go in exchange for wishes. Then, I picked wild flowers, skunk weed, and other vegetation and pretended to make magic potions. I ground up bark with a sharp piece of blue shale plucked from the roadside to make a fine reddish powder for makeup.

I imagined myself to be characters from books. I'm still especially fond of fairy tales, mythology, Shakespeare, and Bible stories. I was visited by dragons and dinosaurs. An apothecary bottled poison for me. I became a dwarf, my tool an old nail, as I scraped away the soft rock matrix hiding garnets in a boulder brought from an abandoned mine out the road. Animals talked to me and trees listened, gently nodding or swaying like old ladies who disapprove of gossip on principle, but cannot help silently registering their opinion on overhearing it.

I must be home by dark, when evil takes over and my fairyland is no longer safe for humans to wander. But dark is late. Dark is approaching midnight. I don't remember being tired. When I returned as an adult, I found that memory to be true. My body adapted to the length of each day. I needed little sleep in the summer and nearly hibernated through the winter. My stamina returned, and my body became fit and toned without any conscious effort to do so. I had only to go outside every day. To breathe, to walk, to eat the diet of my childhood was enough to bring my body into balance. It made me wonder how much of human adaptation to a localized environment is in our genetic nature and how much is nurtured by the environment of our formative years. Whatever the case, my body knew that it was home.

While it's true that the gray skies and rain barely registered, the occasional breakthrough of sunshine carried more magic by virtue of contrast. When the clouds opened and the sun peeked through, it was easy to imagine that the earth was being kissed by a great benevolent spirit. On my island, every direction you look is filled with a stunning view of snow-capped peaks and untrodden wilderness. It is easy there to believe that leprechauns follow rainbows and Puck is darting through the canopy on a mission to make trouble.

All these woods were my playground from infancy. I never thought much about them, nor that I might miss them. They seemed so permanent, and they are there still. But I am no longer immersed in this fantastical natural setting. Sometimes, I ache from my soul to return again. It is not a place that can simply be seen. It must be felt, heard, smelled, tasted, breathed. You must draw it into your being and let it become a part of you, purify you, so you can carry the magic within you when you leave.

After I turned seven, I was also allowed to go into town. Downtown Petersburg changes in the summer. The population doubles as migrant workers arrive to take jobs in the canneries and on fishing boats. The resident male population comes and goes with the tides and the legal fishing seasons for each species. The women run the town, from the two full-service grocery/general stores to the little local art and books shops. They make up half the volunteer fire department and fill the majority of civil service positions, including Mayor that year. They civilized this little outpost on the last frontier. Like generations of pioneer women before them, they are the pillars of the community, the strength which holds such adventuresome and independent men together so that something more than individual subsistence living can exist.

Into this character web of already odd and interesting individuals streamed college students from all over the world. They came for the promise of a full year’s wages earned over a three-month summer break. They stayed in the cannery barracks my grandpa, helped build, with resident families, or in the tent city just out the road past the airport.

Occasionally, one stayed with my family. My older sister received piano and voice lessons from a woman that stayed in our guest room. This young woman had been raised on the foreign mission field and been part of a Christian rock band before coming north to work to pay for her next adventure. But my sister is six years older than me, and the daily rituals of her life held no meaning for me yet. She was busy avoiding her annoying younger sibling, like all older sisters from the beginning of time. One less thing to hamper my freedom.

I walked the seven blocks downhill to Main Street with a light step. The last block, by the post office, had the only patch of public lawn in town. It was obligatory for free spirited children to roll down...if it ever got dry enough. When it was wet, balancing down the wall alongside it would do. If I crossed the street, I could go upstairs in the city building to the city library. Downstairs lurked the public health nurse with her dreaded shots. No need to visit her. Around the corner was the police station, but my dad worked graveyard shifts and wasn't there to share one of his Canfield's Diet Chocolate Fudge Sodas with me. I popped in anyway to say "Hi" to the dispatchers.

There was a new candy shop in town. I rarely had enough money to go in, so I watched the taffy pulling machine through the window for a while, then took my pennies to the five and dime for gum balls from an old machine they undoubtedly lost money on. I wandered through a gift shop that only opened regularly in the summer, where I knew there would be free samples of fudge. Then, I went into the general store...alone. The stock rarely changed, but I went there often to drool over the Peaches and Cream Barbie I wanted more than anything else in the world. She would be the first Barbie I bought with my own money. But not yet.

My dad wouldn't let me have Barbies because of their "hyper-sexualized image." Fortunately, my babysitter let me come over and play with hers. When I turned seven, my big sister gave Dad what for, and permission was reluctantly granted. She was always good at debate. Mom, not wanting to push the issue, bought me two cheap knockoff fashion dolls for my birthday. Dad's big sister bought me real Barbies. Big sisters may want to avoid you, but they are important when you're seven.

When I'd window shopped sufficiently, I wandered over toward the docks. This was the one area I was not allowed to go. Someone's dog got plucked right off the dock by a sea lion a few years prior, so kids were banned unless actually going to a boat. But I could lean on the fence by the dry docks and watch the sea lions play. I could watch bald eagles fish and occasionally see the back of a whale, orca, or porpoise glide by on its way through the Wrangell Narrows.

This was where I met a new girl. I can't remember her name. I think it was Amy. I never saw her at school. She usually lived on a boat with her dad. That summer she was living in a shack behind the greasy spoon restaurant on Main Street and across from the dry docks. When I say shack, I mean something prefab you might put in your backyard. It held little more than bunk-beds and a dresser.

The idea of a father and daughter living in one room in those conditions made me uncomfortable. Mostly because my cousins had gone through hell the year prior when it was discovered that their dad was molesting them. I didn't entirely know what that meant yet, but I thought it had something to do with sleeping together. When something like that happens in a small town, there's no getting away from the unwanted attention. Even well-meaning attention is unbearable. My aunt divorced him, married another questionable guy because, like so many women, she didn't know how to take care of her kids alone. Then, she left town with them to get away from the shame. My dad was the investigating officer. Even though he kept their confidentiality, I heard enough from others.

But Amy's dad's boat was out of commission, so he was out working on someone else's boat most of the time and had to leave her ashore. Only when I came back as an adult, and got to visit a few fishing boats, did I realize that shack was a veritable palace compared to crew quarters on a boat. So Amy, a girl just my age, was living alone for most of the summer. Everyone knew her by her family, like they knew me, and they looked out for her. She knew places to go that I would never have dared. With my closest regular friend out on her family's fishing boat all season, I spent much of my summer of freedom in Amy's company.

She knew about the penny gum balls and fudge samples (the fudge lady gave bigger samples to her). She also went straight into the back dining room of the greasy spoon and ate sugar packets, and no one bothered her. The waitresses brought water out, checked that she'd eaten real food, and asked where she'd been. When I had a little pocket change, she introduced me to Lik-M-Aid. She had her own secret Lik-M-Aid recipes involving glasses of water and more sugar packets. She knew the way over the hill at the end of Main Street to the beachy portion of the coastline where we could ineffectively dig for clams with sticks and dare each other to touch sea cucumbers. She knew where they were building the new harbor and where there were crab pots to climb on. She knew what all the different types of boats were fishing for and how the different equipment on them was used.

On the Fourth of July we watched the town parade as it meandered down Main Street, then up around the block and down Main Street again. We dug for change in the big pile of sawdust the bank sponsored, then spent it at the booths lining the sidewalks. We watched the lumberjack games together. We sat around an old wooden cable-spool-turned-table on the deck of Harbor Lights Pizza until eleven o'clock at night, so we'd have a good seat to watch the town fireworks display set off across the water. We listened to the thunderous rumble of the explosions echo up and down Frederick Sound.

I brought her up the hill to my house, a world as foreign to her as hers had been to me. I packed a picnic, saltines and a can from my mother's secret stash of Diet Cokes, into my orange Tupperware picnic basket, and took her up the hill further. A back trail led to the little league diamond. We could pick salmonberries along the way. Then we went off the trails to catch frogs, a pastime she loved. She wasn't as keen to let them go at the end. We took buckets of them home to keep. The dogs tipped the buckets during the night and dined on frog legs.

Before the summer was over, she disappeared. One day the shack was closed up and she was gone. My other friend came home about the same time, so whatever Amy's dad had been fishing for was probably no longer in season and he had earned enough money to fix his own boat. She wasn't at school when it opened in September. No one seemed to remember her or be worried about her. Her transience through my life has made me wonder if I imagined her, but how could I imagine something so foreign to me? Her world was entirely outside of my experience. Like a character in a fairy tale coming into my life for a season, to open my eyes to a bigger world, then leaving without adieu. More magic.

School started in September, as it inevitably does, and I got the best second grade teacher ever. Ms. Franzel had long red hair and loved to read Pippi Longstocking. She dressed up as Pippi for Halloween, wired red braids and all. Because I loved my teacher, I dressed up as Pippi, too. She understood my love of learning and let me go ahead of the class in reading and math. She decided the whole class was advanced enough to learn cursive, something I dearly longed to do. Something our third grade teacher got mad about the following year.

I wanted to go to school every day, and I hugged her goodbye every afternoon. When I took the standardized tests at the end of the year, I got 100% on three of them and 99% on the other two. Because she made me want to try, I discovered that I was unusually gifted academically. Something I needed to know as the fourth child in a talented family. My mom always said everyone was good at something, but I didn't know what I was good at until that year.

This superpower I discovered in myself was the magic that carried me through the following school year, in which I had a teacher who hated smart kids. I felt so bullied by my third grade teacher that I went back down the hall to hug Ms. Franzel every day after school. Good teachers plant magic beans in the hearts of children that grow into enormous beanstalks reaching up to the heights of our imaginations. We climb them and discover the treasure within ourselves and our innate ability to defeat giants.

Not all magic is good. Seven was also the year I watched an after-school special and realized what my older foster brother had done to me when I was five, just before he was sent to a state facility because he was getting into too much trouble. Everything we were taught about good touch, bad touch, and sexual abuse, in school and on TV, urged me to tell. But I remembered what happened to my cousins. I watched their family be destroyed. Worst of all, they had to leave my island. I knew what it would mean for this to happen in my dad's house. The man who was charged by the town with investigating this type of crime. I knew what my foster brother's history had been, and that he was already basically in jail. I considered carefully.

For me it was a choice between revenge against a boy I had no feeling of vengeance toward, only sympathy as he was passing on his own experience of abuse, and protecting my family from the fallout of this kind of scandal in a small town. I decided to say nothing. As an adult, I've never regretted my decision to be silent then. I acknowledge my experience was an unusual exception. He quickly hit the three strikes law in Alaska, so I know he's in prison and not out hurting other children. I took control of my future and chose what would have the best outcome for me and my family. In doing so, I effectively ended the ability of his actions to negatively impact my future.

The realization that this had happened to me and that I had been unaware, caused me to engage with reality. I still overlaid it with my imagination, but I was aware of the reality. Like Sleeping Beauty, who lived a hundred years in a dream, I had lived entirely within my mind. But this strange magic came when I was seven, and woke me up to the world.

My fourth daughter turned seven this year. Once again, I am watching a child transit that mystical bridge between her world within and the world around her. It demands her attention, sometimes frightens, sometimes awes. She is discovering her own strength. That she has power to create ripples, however small they may be, in the collective experience of humanity. How young she seems, but how powerful. She knows about the magic, too.

Friday, January 31, 2014

"Love, Joy, & Pees" Now Available

I'm incredibly excited to announce that my first poetry booklet is Now Available to purchase online at! The booklet is at the printer and will be in my hands to deliver or ship by Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. It's going to be beautiful on warm white felt cardstock, and will include a matching envelope so it can be easily mailed as a greeting or given as a card. But it's so much more than a card. With 10 of my most popular children's poems on eight illustrated pages, it's sure to make you lol.

Help me out by ordering in advance and I will autograph as many copies as you like. Just write how many copies and to whom in the "notes to seller" box of your cart during checkout. This is only offered here, or when you order from me in person. If you note that you will be at the San Francisco Writers Conference the weekend of Feb. 14th, I will deliver your booklets to you in person! You can find me there in the Volunteer Lounge each morning of the conference.

Shipping via USPS and sales tax are included in the price.