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When Red Tape Blocks Neighbors from Helping the Homeless

The community I live in, Front Royal, Virginia, has a large problem with homelessness. And with the record cold temperatures we’ve been facing over the past few weeks, the non-profits who work the problem of homelessness as well as several local churches met on Thursday to discuss a simple solution to a horrific problem: how do we get the 75-100 homeless citizens of Front Royal out of the freezing temperatures during the night. As reported by the Royal Examiner,

The first Thermal Shelter meeting was held Thursday evening, Jan. 11 at New Hope Bible Church, to discuss the serious need for a temporary thermal shelter in Warren County.

The Royal Examiner’s take was that the Thermal Shelter meeting had a strong turnout, and the Mayor of Front Royal, Hollis Tharpe, “was in attendance and was able to help answer a variety of questions.” In addition, the Royal Examiner emphasized several positive results. For one thing, the community united to address a serious problem. In addition, the meeting successfully accomplished something: several churches in attendance volunteered to hold week-long thermal shelters from 7 PM to 7 AM, starting immediately.

The Gazebo, where in good weather homeless try to find shelter
Photo Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

The article (which did a great job quickly summarizing the specifics of what occurred that evening) did not mention an additional positive aspect of the meeting. Pastor Marc Roberson of Riverton United Methodist Church spoke about the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS). As one of the founders of WATTS, Pastor Marc knows how to run a Thermal Shelter. Pastor Marc went over the practicalities, the resources and volunteers needed for conducting Thermal Shelters. He also discussed how to train volunteers and how to set up a strong structure that would ensure that the Thermal Shelters ran smoothly. Pastor Marc also explained that churches should figure out how to integrate housing the homeless with safely running activities that involve children and teenagers—which again is a concern that churches must and can resolve. For example, churches can ensure that the homeless guests arrive an hour after all activities end and leave an hour before morning activities commence in the mornings. WATTS, for the record, is now well funded, with paid workers, but it started off as a volunteer organization organized in a time of great need.

Kathy Leonard (l), Vicki Davies, Michelle Smeltzer, Pam Williams and Roni Evans.
Photo Credit: Jen Avery

Nonetheless, none of this can legally happen right now, which leads me to express my take on this first meeting. First, I’m grateful to the news organizations that covered the meeting, particularly Jen Avery from the Royal Examiner. Naturally, I’m grateful to the folks from the churches and non-profits that came and volunteered their time and support to help solve a public emergency.

Moreover, I’m grateful to the organizers of the event: Pastor Bobby Stepp of New Hope Bible Church; Kathy Leonard, Homeless Liaison for Front Royal and facilitator of the evening; Vicki Davies of St. Luke Clinic, Michelle Smeltzer, with House of Hope and the Department of Social Services; Pam Williams, from The Potter’s House; and Roni Evans. Every single organizer there realized that as a community we must do something, and now, to get our brothers and sisters, off the streets.

After all, people die in the cold, and as Pastor Bobby Stepp said in his opening prayer when he quoted from the Bible:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:35-40.

All or almost all of the attendees present, no matter their religious affiliation, agree that a community should help shelter the homeless. The eight or more churches who volunteered their time and resources follow the axiomatic principle that being a good citizen means you do not allow your neighbors to freeze in the cold. We have neighbors who are freezing tonight. There’s just no way around this truth.

Hollis Tharpe, Town Mayor
Photo Credit: Jen Avery

Unfortunately, as the meeting progressed, truth and emergent need ran into a massive roadblock: bureaucratic red tape. Mayor Tharpe explained that before a church could legally host a Thermal Shelter, it would have to go through a sixty to ninety day process that would include no less than four town hall meetings as well as a visit from a Fire Safety Inspector. The tone in the room changed dramatically after Mayor Tharpe spoke. He in fact, did not speak of red tape; in fact, he said that “he would move the process along as fast as he could.” And when asked for comment afterward, Mayor Tharpe said that he didn’t understand why a permit was needed in the first place and he would check on the situation and the legal stance of the town on Tuesday. “I’m on the little guy’s side.” In truth, Mayor Tharpe hardly comes across as an obstructionist to the cause of homelessness. Nonetheless, the issue of bureaucratic red tape changed the tone of the meeting.

Indeed, an air of civil disobedience arose. It was palpable and it was alive. I was part of this wave of people who muttered, “This will not do,” which was quickly followed by several suggestions. “We can hold a slumber party,” exclaimed one church leader. “Or a lock-in,” cried another church leader or church goer. “Or we can build an underground resistance movement and ask forgiveness not permission,” murmured a member of one of the non-profits in attendance.

Stevi Robinson, the Chair for Fundraising from Warren County’s Habitat for Humanity, who was in attendance at the meeting along with Vice President Kim Taylor Jones stated afterwards:

A 2007 Habitat for Humanity construction site in the United States
Photo Credit: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia

There are many hurdles to overcome in addressing the rising homelessness crisis in Front Royal/Warren County. While it was wonderful to see such a great outpouring of community support last Thursday, the need is still outweighing the current response. There is much work to do still, and I encourage everyone that attended last weeks meeting to bring a friend or neighbor to the next meeting.

My grandmother Hazel used to always say, “never look someone in the face and not see your own.”  Anyone of us given the right circumstances could end up homeless. We as a community have the ability to help everyone have a healthy experience at life. We need to stop turning a blind eye to the tragic living conditions that currently exist for some of our community members.

If the Town and County can’t be motivated by the human factor, Studies show that communities that take a housing first approach enjoy roughly $1.78 return for every $1 spent on such programs. (University of New Mexico ISR). The time to act is now.

The non-profit I serve on as secretary, ROTH of FR (Roof Over Their Heads) has a simple mission statement:

ROTH of Front Royal aims to end homelessness in Warren County, VA by providing housing and supportive services to members in our community through non-judgmental and non-discriminatory assistance.

Five of us from ROTH sat in the front row, and we observed the frustration on the faces of facilitators like Vicki Davis of St. Luke Community Clinic. She has nurses lined up to volunteer their care to homeless men and women who need medical treatment—and could receive it while finding a safe and warm place to sleep at a Thermal Shelter. And now Vicki is being told that her nurses may as well stay home. I haven’t spoken to Vicki, but I can speak on behalf of ROTH. We must help get the homeless off the street when the temperatures drop into the teens. Over the past year, our 501(c)(3) has helped at least one hundred homeless or almost homeless citizens of Front Royal and the surrounding areas in Warren County, but one homeless citizen suffering in sub-freezing temperatures is one too many.

And while I will not quote any of the church leaders in attendance, I am certain that a church should not be told it cannot follow its guiding principles, but should bow to the insanity of a bureaucratic process that will ensure one and only one thing: the homeless will freeze tonight and tomorrow night, until all the formalities and senseless legalities are followed by a legion of would be angels.

There must and should be a better way. And something tells me, based on a question asked of Mayor Tharpe, that if we proceed with this Thermal Shelter idea without going through a 90-day approval process, we will not be thrown in prison for fulfilling our civic and/or religious duty. There is a time to help. And that time is now.

 




An Ice Storm that Can’t Kill 10,000 Hours

Ice glistened on the slabs that rose out of the front yard. The driveway was wet but not slippery because we put salt down in the afternoon, but we couldn’t salt the rocks, so they bore the marks of the cold, cold water that fell on them. When I pulled into the high school, I glanced into the rear view mirror and the grass was grey, laden with the remnants of the storm that brewed yesterday. I wondered how green can turn grey in a certain light, and I thought about the seasons which change like we do. Going back and then forth and back again, the way a road curves around and around a steep incline until it hits the summit, the apex of a place in time. For even summits and mountains alter over time, just at a different pace than the shifting of the solstices.

When we drove down the mountain this morning, a silver Crown Vic in front of us crept down the road. We were in first gear, and I explained to the kids that you gotta let the engine brake for you. None of them was happy with how slow we were going, and I tried to teach them; I asked, “Who drives well in the ice?” Two of the kids piped up, “Stoney does,” and I laughed and said, “The correct answer is no one does, not even him, he’s just done it more, he knows it better and he knows what he can and can’t do, there’s no secret formula, there’s just going slow, don’t be mad at the Crown Vic, they’re doing what they’re ‘sposed to do.”

The kids didn’t have a response for this, so I said, “Find us something happy to listen to,” and Madeline pulled up one of her favorite singers. His stage name is Macklemore, and his real name is Benjamin Hammond Haggerty. Just as an aside, I like people named Benjamin pretty much on instinct.

“What category is he in Mom?”

“I dunno. He could be rap like Twenty Pilots is rap, or he could be R&B.”

“Or alternative,” Madeline said.

“Yeah,” I said.

So we drove about fifteen miles an hour, slower around Kitty Corner and the other steep turns, and we listened to music and no one said much more.

Macklemore. By Drew of The Come Up Show (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another one of Macklemore’s songs came on after we listened to “Same Love.” The song after “Same Love” is called “Ten Thousand Hours,” and it’s about how hard an artist works before he or she makes it to the big time. There’s this:

A life lived for art is never a life wasted

Ten thousand

And then there’s the hook, where he repeats the following:

Ten thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands

Ten thousand hands, they carry me.

It’s here she asked me what the song was about, and I explained that you gotta put an immense amount of time into any skill or talent until you mature enough to be considered great. After all, Macklemore writes,

You see I studied art

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint

The greats were great cause they paint a lot . . .

I repeated those lyrics back to her and she said, “Have I written ten thousand hours yet?”

I considered it as I watched the line of cars ahead of us. They looked like metal parts of a snake doing the mamba, but at a distance from one another. “See,” I said, “They’re giving each other a lot of distance, why are they doing that?”

“In case one loses control it won’t hit the ones in front,” she said.

“Right, they’re being smart,” and I thought about how close her birth father rides her, and how this pushes her out of control, like a race car taps the back of the bumper of the car in front and spins it, that’s how close he takes the curves that constitute her world with her. It’s like he pushes and pushes until she’s in full panic mode, just like she was last night after they held one of those parallel conversations where she says one thing and he answers as if they’re talking about a completely different topic, one she’ll never understand because it’s beyond her. After talking to someone like this, who’s in what psychologists call gas-lighting mode, you decide maybe you’re crazy and your heart starts racing and you wanna vomit because the lack of clarity takes an acridity on in your mouth, and you hand your phone to your mother and ask her to make sense of it all.

But I said nothing of this to her; instead, I said, “That’s right, that’s good. You’ve written maybe five thousand hours, you’re really good—“

“—But I’m in school, it slows me down.”

“Macklemore was in school too, but he worked on his music when he wasn’t all the time like you work on your books, by the end of high school you’ll be at ten thousand hours, by the end of college you’ll be a better writer than me.”

“Better?”

“Better.”

I didn’t say more because Macklemore sang the rest of what I had to say, or almost all of it. I want her to write freely of and for herself, but she writes only in third person. Sometimes we struggle over this, and then I come to my senses and I back the car up and follow her from a distance that feels safer to her fragile artistic self. She doesn’t write like I do. She doesn’t tell her story, at least not directly. Instead, she’s created a Tolkien-esque world that’s dominated by kick-ass women who lead a fight to restore freedom in a land ruled by the hand of Cain. It’s a biblical reference, one the character himself chose, because her characters are so real, they do things like choose their own names, their own destinies, their own friends—but even they are stuck with their own birth fathers.

Her world is lush and real, complex and populated by good and evil. Cain resembles someone of course, but that’s the author’s reality intruding in a way that’s subtle. What isn’t subtle in The Third Eye of Cain is the way the patriarchy is crushed. But the women don’t rule as a matriarchy. The author, mind you, says everyone has a place at her table in her world. And then I realize that she doesn’t think she has a place at the table of her own world; she feels like she doesn’t have a voice she can use.

“When we write Redone Strand, are we going with shifting third person POV?” I asked.

“Yeah, I can’t do first person,” she said.

“Can’t?” I glanced over and noticed the windshield was starting to freeze up, so I turned the knob to defrost.

“It’s never comfortable.”

I nodded. This isn’t an argument we can have now. I can’t make her take on first person in her fictional world when she can’t find the words to express her wishes in the here and now. Turning into the parking lot, I was mad for a moment, but not at her. You don’t get mad at daughters who have panic attacks after they try to talk to their birth dads. You just try to figure things out. Being you, you’re always trying to figure things out, both for you and for her, artistically and otherwise. Like you had this idea for her a couple months back. You pitched it to her of course:

Hey you could write about your life in high school, you could write a deep and funny book, a real world type thing, and you could talk about him, about your conversations, about how you play your clarinet and he tells you to go into the basement so he can hear his new wife play the piano, or how he notices all the notes you don’t hit and all the ones your brother does hit, or you could talk about the popular kids who make out in the hallways, or the teachers who don’t like Columbus Day, or the football players who yell at you when your soccer ball dribbles into their court, or the cheerleaders who show off their Brazilian shave jobs, it would be the greatest of books, I know we could get it picked up.

And she gives me this shy smile and I know it’s my dream for her in that moment and I close my eyes and tell myself, “Let her have her own dreams, in art and in life, she’s made this world, no one else builds entire worlds and writes about them, this is what she’s doing, let her follow her path and she’ll fulfill her dharma.”

All of which is right. I’m her mother and I’m her co-writer and I’m her manager and I’m in her soul family too, and I want her to use her voice to write about her troubles in these times, these hard teenage times, the ones that will pass so fast and yet so slow, from equinox to solstice and on, until she’s no longer under my care. She should create as she will and she should use her art however it feels right. But there’s the issue of her voice, the one that would speak of the thousand shreds that burn like molten rock inside when the pain of him gets caught in her throat and she can’t get any air into her thorax. I want to fix it. I want her to speak of it. Talking helps clear the “can’t breathe” air bubble constriction.

But she can’t and won’t yet. All of these things coalesce and then congeal and then when it gets too hard the ice bridge that’s building in her heart shatters and a sliver stabs her in that special place that she would find a better name for in some ancient language, maybe “whakaraerae,” which means “vulnerable” in Maori. She searches for better words in diverse places, checks with me to make sure she isn’t misappropriating other cultures (to which I smile and tell her no, she’s respecting and honoring them) and then she moves them (the words, the customs, the beliefs) to her world, populating it, always, with things from the past that connect our present to the future. She weaves a tapestry of time and place, and her way of rebelling, of speaking up for herself, is indirect and subtle and beautiful.

But now there’s an ice storm raging inside and she’s building her ten thousand hours and he doesn’t even know that her world is an escape from his reality, or her reality with him.

I don’t have all the answers but I keep hearing something hopeful.

I make my living off of words

And do what I love for work.

Macklemore’s got it figured out. In a way, so does my daughter, because no matter what, she keeps writing. And I keep trying to get an agent to take a look at her world. It’s a good one, where kick-ass women fight for equality and freedom for all. And men fight at their sides. Call it utopian. Or just call it her reality.

Sometimes reality blooms out of a story, just like a flower blooms out of a seed.

Ten thousand hours.




The TSA’s Attack on a Disabled Young Woman

I received a text last night. It was from my best friend. I knew she was dropping her 19-year old daughter off at the airport in Bozeman, Montana so that Desi could visit family on the east coast. I was expecting to hear something along the lines of, “Dropping her off was hard, but she’s okay.” After all, her 19-year old daughter is disabled. She has an IQ of 52. She receives social security disability assistance and struggles with short-term memory loss as well as a lost list of mental and physical disabilities that make it harder for her to get through the day-to-day aspects of growing up in 21st Century America. Sometimes I envy her a little though, because things that bother me don’t give her any pause. She knows some things are wrong in the world but she doesn’t realize just how wrong these things are. She’s also one of the most wonderful souls I know. She calls me her “Other Mom” because we’re very close, and she’s just as close to my eldest daughter.

Flying over the Blue Ridge Mountains

I was flying myself when I got the text. We were in a Cessna 172, which is a tiny propeller plane that seats four. It was a gusty afternoon here in the Shenandoah area. Gusty makes for bumpy air, but my man, his son and I had enjoyed flying over the snow-tipped Blue Mountains. We even flew over our house in Front Royal, and did a touch and go at the local airfield, which has a tiny strip surrounded by hills on almost all sides.

Nonetheless, it was freezing in the backseat and the heat in the Cessna wasn’t working. When we landed, I heard my phone buzz to announce a text message from Stevie. I took off my glove and with cold fingers scrolled down to read what Stevie wrote. I read the following words:

She was strip-searched.

I started to shake at this point and not from the cold. Stevie had also called while we were in the air. I hit the call button beneath the log of the last call received but she didn’t answer. I had to wait three hours before I got the rest of the story. It’s a story that no mother will feel good hearing or retelling, but some truths need to be shared and this is one of them.

John Adams wrote that we are supposed to be “a nation of laws, not of men.” The idea behind this quote is that all humans are fallible, and thus we must put in place protections to ensure that those who make and enforce the laws do not trample the rights of the people. The entire purpose of course in forming the United States was to form a “more perfect union” and thus “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . . .” See, Preamble to the Constitution.

Photo from https://bozemanairport.com/tsa-and-security

Our government is aimed at one thing: taking care of the people who live here in the United States. Government should defend its people from harm. Government—our government, for we are the people whom it was built for—should protect us from threats both foreign and domestic. Government should also protect us against violations of our natural liberties. As Thomas Jefferson explained it in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It should go without saying that strip-searching a disabled young adult at an airport violates everything this country stands for. Indeed, the regulations listed on the TSA website say nothing of strip-searching or cavity searching. The TSA does, however, apparently have the right to “pat us down.” The website itself explains the following:

A pat-down may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks. You may be required to adjust clothing during the pat-down. The officer will advise you of the procedure to help you anticipate any actions before you feel them. Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection, and areas may undergo a pat-down more than once for the TSA officer to confirm no threat items are detected.

TSA officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.

You will receive a pat-down by an officer of the same gender. TSA officers will explain the procedures to you as they conduct the pat-down. Please inform an officer if you have difficulty raising your arms or remaining in the position required; an external medical device; or areas of the body that are painful when touched. You may request a chair to sit if needed.

At any time during the process, you may request private screening accompanied by a companion of your choice. A second officer of the same gender will always be present during private screening.

See https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening

Please note that nowhere on TSA’s own website does it speak of strip searches or full body cavity searches. Their own procedures and regulations (at least the ones they make available to the public, who then relies upon these written promises) only speak of “pat-downs,” which are a far, far cry from a strip search or a full cavity search.

Can we rely upon the TSA’s own language as travelers? The simple answer is no. Apparently, the government lies. Or the people who work for the government as TSA personnel violate the policies in some of the worst ways imaginable.

Security checkpoint at Seattle Tacoma (SeaTac) International Airport by Minnaert

Back to the story at hand. Stevie called around ten PM EST. So that’s when I experienced or observed or heard about (however to categorize this when it involves someone who’s like family to you?) my best friend’s daughter being cavity-searched by the TSA. Again, as I mentioned, the girl is nineteen and she’s disabled. She has an IQ of 52. When she checked in at security, she submitted both her military ID (for her mother served in the Navy) and her disability card. Both mother and daughter told the TSA agent that the girl was disabled and was under the legal protection of the mother. No matter.

The girl unpacks her backpack and enters the machine that does full-body scans. Apparently she makes it through the screener. Now, the mom looks away for a split second. A few seconds later, after Mom has grabbed something out of her purse, her daughter’s gone.

Mom is searching now for her disabled daughter.

“She’s been taken into a private room, ma’am,” explains the TSA personnel.

“But she’s disabled, she can’t consent to being taken away!” Mom yells.

No matter.

Disabled daughter is escorted into a closed room. The young lady has no idea what’s happening. She knows nothing of rights to her person. She knows nothing of why they are taking her away into a room.

Meanwhile, Stevie is yelling but her daughter is locked away in a room with no recourse. Several things now happen that go against reason: a man is assigned to strip-search the daughter, but the daughter, now shaking, does manage to object to this. So the man leaves the room and a woman takes over. At no point does anyone explain that the scanner spotted something questionable between the daughter’s legs. Apparently, TSA security is not advanced enough to recognize a maxi-pad or a tampon; indeed, the Internet tells stories of hundreds or thousands of women who have been forced to display their soaked maxi pads or remove their sodden tampons to prove that they are not drug mules or hiding explosives inside their vaginas. That’s what it means to be a women traveling in 21st Century America.

But I digress. Because this is not an ordinary woman who knows how to object, how to refuse to be strip-searched, how to request a family member or friend be present, how to demand the presence of a police officer, or how to simply walk out of the airport and opt out of flying on a plane under conditions that are intolerable. She is legally, mentally, and physically incapable of either objecting or consenting to what’s being done to her.

The mom does everything she can. She’s yelling again and again, “You can’t do this, she is disabled, you cannot take her back there, you cannot violate her rights, she can’t consent!”

The TSA official argues. Mom goes through security despite the possible ramifications and continues to insist, “My daughter is disabled, she cannot give consent to this.” TSA guards block Mom from reaching room. Daughter is not allowed to answer cell phone when Mom calls (which again runs counter to our right to film ourselves while we are being searched and to have a person in the room with us).

So there she is. The disabled young woman is alone in a closed room. She is ordered to remove all her clothing, including her bra, her shirt, her pants, and her underwear. She is then ordered to spread her legs. All of this while she is on her period. Then the girl is CAVITY SEARCHED. “We were looking for drugs,” they explained to the mother later. Or explosives—they didn’t seem to know or care exactly what they might have seen instead of a maxi pad—and maxi pads for the record contain no metallic material whatsoever.

Eventually, after wiping the daughter’s hands to check for signs of explosives, the TSA official opens the door. In full view of everyone who may have been near the gates, the daughter stands there half-dressed, with her shirt still not covering her stomach. She’s shaking and crying when she finishes getting dressed and walks out of confinement.

Is this what we’ve come to in America? We are strip-searching disabled women while they’re on their periods—all without the permission of the young woman’s legal guardian? Are we not more worried about preventing crime than we are worried about protecting the innocent? From their own government? This whole war on terrorism has become a terror, or an attack on innocent citizens.

In the case of this disabled young woman, our government terrorized a U.S. Citizen who was powerless to defend herself. This cavity search was a brutal attack on a disabled person’s very humanity. As a former lawyer, I think in terms of legality, and this was illegal in about nine different ways, but this isn’t just about the law. It’s about the entire purpose of government. It’s about American principles.

We lose our rights piecemeal day by day and our government has become the enemy of all that is human. There’s always a morning after something like this. Like today, I wake up shaking and angry. I see a train and it’s coming toward us all. And I can’t do otherwise–I can’t wave at it and not care, so I try to figure out how to derail it. I’m hurt and angry and there’s some brokenness in me too, but there’s others out there who are more hurt and more broken than I am.

So I must act. Last year, I dedicated my art to peaceful political revolution. My latest book is about preserving the humans who are at the backbone of the political system. Not the system. The individuals who should (who MUST) be protected by it. My work is idealistic. I write and I work on the behalf of those who can’t derail the speeding train of inhumane abuse. I write for people like my beloved Desi, the disabled woman who is subjected to cavity searches by fiat of gray-faced terrorists who act in the name of the United States government.

Maybe this is all that’s left of my idealism. Telling stories to show how the train’s coming and how we can derail it, and in the meantime trying not to suffer too much when I hear about assaults on innocent victims or watch the death reels of white and black men being shot and killed or reading the latest paeans to human cruelty. Government should not be cruel to the innocent, but it is.

These are bad times we live in—it actually hurts me to write that, because I love my country and I love the humans who live under its aegis, but it’s the cold, blunt truth. And we help no one when we hide from it.

 




The Parabola of an Itch

As Wikipedia explains, “In mathematics, a parabola is a plane curve, which is mirror-symmetrical, and is approximately U-shaped when oriented as shown in the diagram below (it remains a parabola if is differently oriented).” No, don’t run away, it’s gets interesting in a minute. Just picture a parabola.

At the top axis on the left is when the itch begins. At the midpoint or bottom, when the number hits zero, is when you reach maximal despair. And at the top right axis, when we’re back at 1, it means you’ve reached nirvana, or the end of the itchiness.

By IkamusumeFan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37254596

When the itch started, it was nothing much. I was sitting on the sofa reading something about the President. I was already experiencing mild consternation. Then I felt something on my foot. I reached down and scratched. Then I scratched some more. Finally, I took my sock off and surveyed the surface of my foot. Three bumps, and some redness. I shook my head and took my sock off.

Eight hours later. It’s three a.m., the time of most of my small and large emergencies. I’m wide awake and scratching; indeed, I was dead asleep and scratching and I know this because the three bumps have multiplied, thickened, and expanded. And my fingers are cramped up, like they’ve been working hard. Busy little fingers. I stumble into the bathroom, apply hydrocortisone, and check the clock. It’s too early, or too late. I go back to sleep.

Five hours later. I’m now about at the 0.75 line, which brings with it a startling recognition: the itch is worse. The rash is spreading. I conduct a mad search for the steroidal cream I’ve been hoarded since the Last Great Itch. This involved poison ivy (cue the song).

I find the steroid cream: the great and wonderful Alclometasone Dipropionate USP, 0.05 %. There’s half a container left. I apply it and smile.

The first day of itching passes. I am still happy more or less. It’s just an itch. A small tiny rash on the top of my left foot. And no, there’s no way it can relate to the Lamictal I’m taking. Never mind that a Lamictal rash can be deadly if untreated. I’m fine.

Day 2.

I wake up and run into the kitchen in search of the steroid cream. “Morning Mom!”

“Ugh I am dying.”

“Want some coffee?”

“In a sec.” I gasp and apply lotion. It will take ten to fifteen minutes to allay the burn. I turn to my son and for the second time that minute, I lecture myself internally: do not scratch it, do not even think about scratching it, do not even think about not scratching it, it’s just a wee little rash. It’s Day 2. I’m still happy, but it’s definitely an itch on the level of a poison ivy. That said, every bout of poison ivy I’ve had has ended more or less on Day 3 once I apply steroid cream. All will be better tomorrow.

 

Day 3, Evening.

I’m on the sofa. It’s cozy. I’m curled up next to my man. Suddenly I sit bolt upright. “Oh my God, Ben, get me the stuff fast!”

“The what stuff?”

“Ben,” Maddie explains, “Her foot is itching, get the white and red itch lotion.”

I cringe waiting. It takes him at least an hour to return with it, and he’s our best runner. After my rabbit returns and hands me “the stuff,” I rub it on and say to my man, “Look at it, is it getting better?”

“Same as yesterday,” he says.

The Red and White “Stuff”

“So it’s not better?”

“No.”

“Is it worse?”

He shakes his head and gives me a sympathetic smile.

“Did you know some people die from Lamictal reactions?”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” I nod sagely. “But this is no Lamictal rash.”

“I suppose you’ve been looking at things on the internet.”

“Not yet.” I swallow, and gaze mournfully at my foot.

Day 4.

Our charity has a big event. I have a speech to give. But my main concern is how to prepare for a night of itching. There will be no removal of socks while speaking. Boots must be worn. Appearances must be maintained. There will be no itching at the Open Mic. It’s two hours before go-time. I sit on the sofa watching football. Iowa’s losing. We are both mournful. We wonder outside at halftime. I am sock and shoeless and it’s freezing cold, but there is hope. It’s been four days. The itch must end soon.

“Sweetie,” my man says.

“Huh?”

“Your toes are turning blue, you should put your socks on.”

I bend my toes and shake my head. “Nope. Blue is a pretty color.”

“It itches that bad?”

“Yes. I think I should cut it off.”

“That’s a little draconian,” he says.

“Not to mention dramatic,” I say.

That night. We get home after midnight. I hop out of my boots as fast as a firefighters hops into his. I leave a trail of socks in my wake and I sprint to the kitchen counter. I grab “the stuff.”

Day 5.

It’s Sunday. I look up the Lamictal pictures. I sigh and quiver a little, but I’m still courageous and staunch. My foot looks nothing like the man in the picture, whose back is covered in burning scabbed-over rash fires. “It’s not a Lamictal rash,” I say aloud. “But they really are fatal, and there’s a black box warning on the label. Says you should call your doctor at the first sign of a rash.” I’m leaning against the kitchen counter, one eye warily watching Ben as he throws a book a few inches from my steroid cream.

“A rash can’t be fatal, can it?”

“Yes, Lamictal rashes can be fatal, says so in the literature.”

He gives me a skeptical look. Then a light of recognition comes into his blue eyes. “I’ve seen men lose arms and feet after a spider bite.”

“That’s nice,” I say. “You could cut my foot off right now.”

“Cut it off?”

“Yes. I don’t want it anymore.”

“But you won’t die from it.” He smiles at me.

“No I won’t, not if they cut it off.”

Day 6.

Monday. Two days before we head to Montana for Thanksgiving.

I take a shower. It burns. And now the bumps have spread to the sides of the ankle. EL, it’s probably a Lamictal rash. It’s been five days and the rash is not responding to anything, I think to myself. Plus, you’re going away in two days.

So I call the doctor’s office. They have no appointments until Friday. I can call back in an hour and talk to a nurse. “Okay, thank you,” I say. Then I write a technical note to the doctor in less than 1,000 characters. Afterwards, I speak to a nurse.

Then I wait. There’s no response. I swallow two Benadryls. I’m sleepy and it still itches. I whine all afternoon, and by the time dinner passes and there’s no phone call, I realize I’ve reached the bottom of the parabola, where all hope is lost.

“Did we ever get a fire extinguisher?” I look at my man and give him a macabre smile.

“We really need to get one,” he says.

“Yeah, we did almost burn the house down when we grilled bacon.” I shiver and then add, “I want to extinguish the burn, we should go out and get a fire extinguisher.”

“Doc hasn’t called back yet?”

“No, what if it spreads to my face? Just get me an extinguisher. Or cut it off.”

“A fire extinguisher would give you chemical burns, it’s not a good idea, but we should have one yes.”

“My face has been itching all day. Did you know Lamictal Rashes can be deadly?”

“You should call her again,” he says.

“I’m in despair, and I’m almost out of steroid lotion,” I say.

“But it hasn’t been helping, you still have a rash.”

“Without it, I would have died,” I say.

“Is this your anxiety talking by any chance?”

I grin. “No, this is righteous and unmitigated despair. People can die from this.”

“From Lamictal rashes?”

“Yes.”

 

Day 7.

I dream of parabolas and wake up wondering two things: one, why didn’t I pay better attention in pre-calculus? If I had, I could’ve gone to medical school instead of law school and now I could be writing my own prescriptions. And two, where did I leave the red and white nearly empty bottle of steroid lotion? And with a groan, I stumble out of bed and search for despair mitigation in a tiny bottle.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parabola#/media/File:Parabola_circle.svg




Poor Poor Old Roy Moore

Hi Roy. It’s me. You don’t know me from one of the malls or high school football stadiums you frequent. You’ve never heard of me actually. I’m one of those girls who grew up. You actually know a lot of us because you have a taste for the young ones. We grow up as awkward, daffy creatures, but we go on to have babies. Then those babies make it to the tender age of fourteen. Like us when we were young, our teenagers hang out in packs and talk about boys. You should walk up and down a high school hallway sometime. Young love abounds. It’s cute and it’s sweet and it’s a little ridiculous, but that’s okay.

You know when you watch these kids that they’re more or less safe as long as they hang out in their noisy, gawky little groups, but if your kid wanders off, you worry about the predators. I live in a small mountain town called Front Royal. We worry about predators like bears, but we also worry about creeps.

My Daughter’s H.S. Band at Football Game

I told my daughter about creeps last night. I said, “He might be dressed nice, he might talk fancy, he might make you feel special, he might even be a judge or a priest, but if he asks you out, he’s a creep,” and then my youngest son piped up, “Don’t worry Mom, I’ll beat up any creep.” I looked over at him and smiled. “Son, you got another foot to grow before you can protect her, but that-a-boy, I like how you think.” Then I turned to my daughter and in the calmest voice I could summon, I said, “Don’t talk to men like that, they’re wolves who feed on easy prey, and right now, you and your friends are easy prey.”

I know you see things differently. You’ve got a taste for the forbidden. But here’s the thing, Roy. It’s forbidden for a reason. I go to football games every weekend to watch my kid play her clarinet in the band, and I listen to the sweet goofballs behind me. The girls are silly and loud. They curse and wear lipstick and try to look old. The boys sit behind the girls and try too hard. They preen and puff out their chests and drop f-bombs like firemen toss out candy at parades.

Goofy girls and boys. Birds of the same feather, here, Roy. If you listen to them, you’ll realize that among their cuss words and their soft-edged banalities, these kids don’t know where they’re going or how to get there. That’s why they have coaches and band teachers who know how to teach and guide young men and women. There’s many ways to guide a young woman, but we should all be able to agree that taking their innocence in the back of your Mercedes isn’t a good way.

In some ways I’m grateful you won’t step out of your race for the U.S. Senate. You are a part of our awakening. Men like you created the impetus for millions of mothers to march in cities all across the country earlier this year. We marched in Washington, we marched in New York City, we marched in the city streets with our peace signs and our pussy hats and we gave men like you a very simple message.

It goes like this.

Roy Moore in 2001, By BibleWizard

Dear Roy Moore:

Please be quiet. Like really, really quiet. Walk back home and sit down on the sofa and think about what you’ve done.

Yours Truly,

Mother of a Teenage Daughter

I thought about you last night. I have to worry about these things because the President and your friends in Alabama say you’re innocent until proven guilty. I know a hard truth though. Men like you run the legal system. Your accusers will never see justice done.

Then this morning, my cat vomited a hairball on the kitchen floor. Hairballs take a while to emerge but they are the outward manifestation of an inner sickness. Thanks Roy. You helped me understand the half-life and inner meaning of hairballs. On the outside you’re as fine a gentleman as Alabama can offer. You sit behind the bench with your gavel and hand out judgments in full view of the Ten Commandments, but your inner world is devoid of the holiness you purport to enforce and honor.

You just hurled up a hairball, sir, and though it took years to manifest, it’s ugly and no one else is going to clean it up for you. Remember your savior? His name was Jesus, and he had a particular distaste for hypocrites. If he walked into your courtroom now, he would take his whip to you. After all, he really disliked the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Speaking of the Pharisees, they handed him over to be crucified, all in the name of enforcing the law.

By: maorlando – God keeps me as I lean on Him!! from Far NW Houston, Pinehurst, Texas, U.S.A.

You do the same thing of course as a judge. You mete out punishments and brandish your beliefs as if they mean something to you. But your outer actions don’t match your professed inner world. If you really followed the Savior’s teachings, you would treat other fathers’ little girls the way you’d like your own daughter to be treated. If you really walked with God, you would realize that a man’s greatest moment is when he sacrifices his own needs to help someone else.

You do the opposite.

Sir, you dine on innocence. And while professing holiness, you vomit up hairballs. And unlike my beloved cat, you know you’re eating at the wrong table, but you do it anyway. Now you’re blaming the girls. I feel sorry for my cat. And she seems to feel sorry about the mess in the kitchen. You’re not sorry for anything.

All you think about is poor poor ole’ Roy Moore.

 

 




My First Friend on the Mountain

Some people can walk up to other people and with the childlike confidence or perhaps innocence make a new friend. Like when we were in elementary school and landed on the ground after jumping down from the monkey bars. We see another kid, they smile at us, or we smile at them, and one of us says, “Hi, I’m so and so, will you be my friend?” Or you’re seated at a table of four in third grade and the boy next to you writes you a note: “Hey, wanna be friends?” Honestly, it never really happened this easily for me, even when I was in first grade, but I’ve seen other kids do it. And as an adult, I’ve watched with genuine astonishment, with something akin to envy but closer to respect, as other adults make friends with social grace and ease.

When I moved up to the mountain, I was in a brand new absolutely alien spot. The mountain was new; I was as new to it as the roaming packs of deer were to me. I was unprepared for stinkbugs and ladybird swarms; I didn’t know the difference between a copperhead and an eastern rat snake. I also wasn’t used to the new me: single mom, on my own with three kids—getting a fresh start, no less, all alone and knowing no one on my mountain.

For the first month or six weeks or so, I continued not knowing anyone. On my walks alone or with the kids, I would wave to everyone, and almost everyone would wave back. I chatted with a groundskeeper one day. He rented a home on the bottom of the mountain and performed maintenance work. He was friendly but we only talked for a few minutes. I ran into some other folks on one of my walks. I liked their dogs, and we talked about how cute their dogs were for a few minutes. But that was it. I had my kids, and I had my friends who lived far away.

Sometimes I was all alone on the weekends, but usually at least my daughter would be at home with me. On the rare weekends when all three kids went on their biweekly visits with their father, I would kinda lose my mind. The mountainside with its cliffs and its dense fogs sometimes seemed alive, but aloof and unfriendly. At those times, I would text or call my best friend and I’d whine. It would go something like this:

“OMG, I’m lonely, I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve written 3,000 words, I’ve gone for a hike, no this time I didn’t get lost, now I’ve made dinner and I don’t know what else to do.”

“You need to meet people.”

“Meet people?”

“Yeah, go introduce yourself to someone or join a charity or something.”

“Ugh.”

“El, you like charities.”

“I know.”

“What about the coffee shop?”

“Guess I could bring my laptop and hide behind it while I drink a latte,” I mused.

“No. Don’t bring your laptop and hide.”

“Ugh, why can’t you move next door?”

“From across the country?” Her voice was edged with disbelief.

“Yes, it’s a really good idea.”

“You need people near you, someone you can play cards with.”

“But I’d have to meet them first.”

“Yes, if you want to play cards with someone you need to meet them first.”

“I know.”

“Or you could pay attention to the opposite sex, you know, think about dating,” she said.

“Argh.”

“Well, yes. Now go out and meet someone, I gotta go.”

I never did muster out to meet anyone. But one weekend, after living in our chalet for about six weeks, I was out for a walk with Ben. He was jumping from the edge of the ravine to the road, searching for rocks, all bundled up in his blue jacket against the cold of an October morning. And a voice with an eastern European accent called out to me, “Hi, good morning, how are you?”

I looked around until I spotted the curly blonde-haired owner of the voice. She was standing in the driveway of a barnhouse style cabin, with a view of the mountains behind her and a stack of firewood that was at least six or seven feet tall. She was middle-aged and a youthful fifty. Her cheeks were rosy; her eyes, wide set. She stood about five-five and her entire countenance spoke of health and the outdoors. With sparkling blue eyes, she could have walked out of a Susi Chapstick commercial. She’d have been one of the tour guides or the skiing instructors.

I swiveled around and took her in, and I couldn’t help smiling. “Hello there,” I said.

“Saw you walking the other day, you have such beautiful children.” She smiled at Ben, whose dirt-encrusted jeans bore rips in both knees.

“Thank you.” I smiled and tried not to look silly. “We’re living in Singh’s chalet for a few months until we can get something more permanent. My name’s El, it’s nice to meet you.”

She walked towards me with her hand out. “I’m Katya.”

After we shook hands, I smiled again.

Katya smiled back.

“I think I saw you too, have you been here long?”

“Ten years.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I moved up here after my divorce.” Then Katya began to talk, and I forgot about feeling shy or silly. I just listened for several minutes as she relayed her story. She still loves her husband very much. They were, in fact, soulmates, or something close to that. They sailed around the world together. Had a “beautiful” daughter. Had a “beautiful life” together, which all began when she was living in her native country Russia and “Will” was visiting from America. Katya hardly spoke English; Will, broken Russian. Yet they fell in love, and in time, Katya married Will and they lived happily ever after. Until they got divorced.

Katya skipped over the exact reasons for why she split with Will. She went on to say that they got along “beautifully,” and then she told me that she started in Front Royal with almost nothing to her name. But she had guts and smarts, not to mention a degree in finance. She opened her own consulting company, and with days left before a loan payment came due, she landed her first client. From there, Katya said with a cheerful smile, her business took off, and ever since, she has managed money for what sounded like a wide range of clients.

I took all this in. I listened and was intrigued, charmed and warmed by Katya’s story. Ben hopped in and out of our conversation, and then Katya said, “Would you like to come in and see my home?”

I said, “Sure, I’d love to, come on, Ben, we’re going to see Ms. Katya’s home,” and we followed her down the walkway, up the steps, and into a gorgeous, tidy, wonderful mountain home. She showed us all around, from the top floor to the bottom, and the whole time, we kept talking. Ben kept hopping in and out of the conversation, and two years later, Katya would laugh and remind me about how “Ben rolled around upside down on the floor.”

Katya and I talked about Russian and America; easy choices and not so easy ones; energy and the law of attraction; life and death; birth and rebirth; friends and soulmates; the end and the beginning; the before and the after. I didn’t inveigh on God too much, for we weren’t going to meet there, not exactly, just as we would never meet in the same place on all matters spiritual—and yet, we met, and somewhere in that meeting was this sense of solace that a good conversation brings.

Katya was my first friend on the mountain. She remains my friend to this day. And she is also singlehandedly responsible for finding me the home I now own—but that’s another story. For another day.

How about you? Is it easy for you to make friends? And do you have friends you can walk and talk with, or do you find friendship over long distances or online?




One More Word? Yes, He is My Son

This afternoon, I walked away from the lunch table at my son’s school and a woman’s voice followed me.  “Is that your son?” I held the back of my hand up.  Was it rude of me?  I didn’t care.  Not one more word.  I had heard enough.  She had already tried to talk to me and I had ignored her, this Spanish “lunch lady” with the wide cheekbones and the light in her brown eyes.  I had already heard about it.  Ben, 5, had crawled under the table and kissed a girl in his class and yet another freaking note had come home from school that day.  But when I asked my child why he kissed this girl, he asked me a question.  “Mom, why did you give me a pink thermos?  All the kids made fun of me.”  I had stared at him, astonished, and felt relieved as he added, “And Rachel defended me.  She told them to stop making fun of me.”  After I took it all in, I smiled.  “So you kissed her?”

The notes and phone calls keep coming like junk mail or telemarketers who call at dinnertime.  Yesterday he got sent to the Vice Principal’s Office after he used his finger to shoot another kid.  The school has a no-tolerance policy for fake-finger guns.  And my son distracted all his classmates.  His table tattled on him because if he got them in trouble, they wouldn’t earn enough points to receive lollipops.  And he called a boy on his bus a “diaper head” on the way home from school.  He had a very, very bad day.  So my husband made him spread mulch as punishment, and I insisted that my dimpled mess of a son apologize to each and every soul he hurt first thing in the morning.  And I planned to show up unannounced for lunch.

And I did.  I entered the school and immediately I spotted a little guy with baggy jean shorts, skinny legs, massive calves and a rust-colored long-sleeved t-shirt.  He wore a vacant, frightened stare on his face.  I tried to breathe but his fear and pain were palpable and it hurt me to see this little boy because he is mine.

Then he saw me.  And hope entered his eyes.  He tried to smile and then looked behind him for his teacher.  He took his odd little hop, skip and dance-step and followed me with his eyes as I circled behind him to check into the office.  He did not scream “Mama” out loud but his entire body leaned toward me, into me, as if we were the opposing poles of a magnet.  I winked at my man-child and barked at his teacher, “Where will you be next?”  She told me that they had lunch in fourteen minutes.

A minute later, I caught up to Ben.  Standing in the elementary school hallway by the bathrooms, he appeared lost and so little, and so did his tiny classmates.  I felt their confusion and uncertainty and fear and I wanted to put their inchoate voices out of my mind.  A little boy spoke.  “Ben’s Mom?”

I nodded genially.  “Yes.”

“Ben is bad.”  Then another little boy exclaimed, “Ben is bad!”

A female creature heard that I was Ben’s mom and she said, “You’re Ben’s Mom?”  I tried to say I was and she cried, “Ben is bad!”

A darkness descended and my vision blurred.  I imagined my hand slamming through the glass window and blood dripped.  I closed my eyes and I counted to ten and I tried to think but I spoke without thinking.  I was running on reflex and running from anger and deep-seated rage at what happened to Little El.  She was “bad.”  She was very very bad.  Not my son.  “No, Ben is not bad.”

“Yes he is,” argued another little girl.  “He always gets in trouble.”

The glass is shattering and Little El screams.  Shhh.  It is okay sweetie.  I am holding you.  “Perhaps he does bad things sometimes, but he is punished, was—“

Another boy chimed in before I could finish explaining that actions have consequences in our home.  “Ben is always bad.  Are you Ben’s Mom?”  I shake my head in frustration and try to answer but shards of glass are stabbing me.

His teacher walks toward me and starts to correct one of the boys.  Before she can start in on me, I mumble, “Did he do anything wrong today?”

“No, not at all.  In fact, he apologized to the entire class this morning, first thing.”  His teacher is a veteran, and she does not put up with much, so when another kid interrupts and starts to tell Ben’s Mom that Ben is bad, she shakes her head at him, but my voice carries.  “Right, so at least 5 kids have already told me that Ben is bad.”  The teacher shakes her head and scoffs.  “We don’t use that word.  We say he is weak.”

“My SON IS NOT WEAK.”  I am not yelling but my body is torn.  It’s like my heart is bursting out of my chest.  Ben often tells me that he loves me so much his heart is bursting with love.  I feel that now for him.  My son raises his hand, and speaks with outrage, “Jason says my Mom is mean.”  I glare at Jason and then I recall that he is 5 and I try, very hard, to smile and I do, sort of smile.  It’s funny.  I smile so often, so easily, most days but now my heart hurts too much.  But I smile anyway.

His teacher finds me in the lunchroom and she grabs my hands and she promises me that she didn’t mean he was weak and I believe her, I think.  I tell her how hard we are trying, but all I want to do is buy Ben his pretzel.  And I want the glass to stop breaking.  And I buy our pretzels and we eat and I hug my man-child and he sits on my lap and the time passes.

That’s when it happens.  She asks me if Ben is my son, and I can’t take anymore, but one thing I am not is rude.  I stop.  I turn.  And I look her in the eyes and I respond, proud but grim, “Yes, yes he is my son.”

She smiles.  Her eyes are full of light.  “I love your son.  He is a lovely boy.”  My chest stops aching.  The glass stops breaking.  And she keeps talking to me, “He has such a sweet soul and the girls will love him.  A sweet boy—your boy.”  I hold his lunch box and for the first time in an hour, I feel warm.  “Thank you.  That means so much to me.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Yes, he is my son.”  I leave the lunchroom and I tell my son again how much I love him and I go home and wait for him to return to me.

© March 23, 2012 E. L. Phoenix




Ladybug Invasion

When I was a little girl, I was girly about ladybugs. I loved them. I loved in particular the idea of taking a VW Bug and decorating it like a real-life, breathing, belching personification of all things ladybug. I loved them so much, I wrote stories about the little Ladybug I’d own someday. Thank goodness those stories were long since lost, but my ladybug fascination would one day come back to haunt me.

It all started one hot October afternoon. I was sitting there minding my own business, or minding my kids’ business, or minding my characters’ business, and I feel this sharp, this violent and brutal attack, to my forearm. I’m thinking a wasp has gotten in through the screen, so I look down like I’m gonna slap this thing, and I freeze. It’s a sweet little red and black thing. And it’s biting me.

By BTDenyer – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15706449

Now, a word about these red and black . . . things. I did some research on them and it turns out they cause all sorts of outraged argumentation among entomologists. I of course am no entomologist (though I did take a course on Entomology in undergrad, but that was only because it didn’t require a lab and I wanted an easy A; it was not, as it turns out, an easy A but that’s another matter—suffice to say I have a weak fortitude for all things insect-related). Anyway, a ladybug is not really a bug—it’s a beetle. And it’s actually a ladybird. As an entomologist from the University of Florida explains it if not clearly, at least in a way that will amuse all but the most dour of readers:

Ladybird is a name that has been used in England for more than 600 years for the European beetle Coccinella septempunctata. As knowledge about insects increased, the name became extended to all its relatives, members of the beetle family Coccinellidae. Of course these insects are not birds, but butterflies are not flies, nor are dragonflies, stoneflies, mayflies, and fireflies, which all are true common names in folklore, not invented names. The lady for whom they were named was “the Virgin Mary”, and common names in other European languages have the same association (the German name Marienkafer translates to “Marybeetle” or ladybeetle). Prose and poetry mention ladybird, perhaps the most familiar in English being the children’s rhyme: Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children all gone…

Okay, so honestly, I reread it three times and I didn’t understand that either. See, I got stuck on the song:

Ladybird, ladybird (BUG damnit), fly away home,

your house is on fire, your children are all gone.

After years of bewilderment, I understand what this song really means. The little beasts are taking over your home. They’re biting you so hard your arm burns! RUN!

Seriously, I now know that the Ladybug is really a ladybird, but the ladybird is neither a real bug nor a bird so much as a beetle. And it can be a good or bad visitor. Good ladybugs eat harmful pests like aphids (those are the critters that destroy rosebushes). Bad ladybirds swarm into your home, eat your food, and bite you. They’re like flying sharks with fangs. In fact, according to the University of Florida’s entomology page, some ladybirds knock out plant pests, or pests who kill plants, but some ladybirds are themselves pests.

Ladybird eating an aphid U.S. Public Domain, image by Scott Bauer

The latter invaded my home, beginning on that hot October afternoon. They came two by two and then two hundred by two hundred, and they wouldn’t sit still or stop hopping and flying from one light to the other in our overrun Chalet. I didn’t know anyone up on the mountain yet, so I didn’t realize our situation was a common one for Shenandoah dwellers. I thought at first the ladybirds were just welcoming us to our new home. Until, that is, I counted more than one hundred of them circling our dining room table like airplanes flying the pattern awaiting a spot to land.

When the cute killers passed from hapless messengers bearing good tidings to home invaders with teeth, I reassessed my position. I was like a general surveying the battlefield. And thus I became a killer. As usual, the boys launched into action and joined the assault. We became killers, but we never defeated the enemy.

To my shock, Madeline joined the ladybird team, and like the Virgin Mary after which they were named, she protected them from harm. As she later explained with a smile, “We all know my room was the bug emporium, so they gathered there and kept me company. One would land on my fingers and I would kiss her and tell her about my day. Others would sit on my windowsill, waiting for their turn to visit.”

Two years later, I would ask her about the ladybirds. “How did you go from terrified of all insects to befriending these Coccinellidae?”

“Aw that’s a great word, do you think it will be on the SATs?”

“No.” I laughed. “You’ll be seeing words like bellicose and consternation. Which would be a good description of your ladybirds.”

Madeline gasped. “No, no,” she said. “That’s a calumny. A better word for my lady friends would be innocuous, mellifluous, peripatetic or resplendent.

“Gah, that’s hyperbolic, at best they’re Flibbertigibbets. In truth, they cause an imbroglio, an absolute effrontery to household harmony.”

“Mom, you launched an all-out dragoon, you forced the boys to join in your brouhaha—”

“—A dragoon?”

“Yes, the word means to compel into compliance, often with violent measures—”

“—Did not!”

“And the results were draconian, did you know that word comes from Draco, a politician from Athens whose codified laws were notorious for their severity, such as death for minor offenses?”

“I need to talk to your history teacher.”

“And tell him what exactly?”

“Oh, well, I’ll tell him you went from being a cold-blooded killer to being an ignominious protector of pests.”

“Oh,” she said, “Well if you do that, remember to make a good comparison.”

“Like what? I know you created a list of the worst lady killers, ha did you like my pun?”

“No, but go on.”

Public Domain in the U.S. Original painting “The Apparition,” by Gustave Moreau 1876

“Oh, well, give me a name from your list of female baddies I can compare you too before you became Florence Nightingale.”

Madeline’s eyes gleamed. “Perfect one is the lady who ordered the . . . what was her name?”

“Uh, I see where’s you’re going with it, nope that’s not appropriate really.”

Madeline looked up from her notebook and frowned. “Yeah you’re right, but in a way it’s perfect, like you ordered the death of all stinkbugs and all other flying insects—”

“—What else you got?”

“The lady who washed herself in the blood of the children she killed?”

“Ew,” I said. “And what’s more, you wouldn’t touch a dead bug, nor would you even view their dead carcasses, you just pleaded for their death.”

“Hmm, true.”

“Yeah,” I said, “And it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring up the woman who ordered John the Baptist’s death.”

“No, probably not.”

“It’s actually downright offensive, he was, after all, my favorite prophet, well, after Jesus,” I added.

“And Elijah, you love him too, uh, what was the name of the one who ordered Herod to kill—”

“—Herodias’ daughter Salome they were horrid, we need someone else.”

“Okay.” Madeline shut her notebook and grabbed her backpack. “I gotta go, I can look for other alternatives after school, but I think you deserve the comparison to the serial killers. After all, you killed my friends.” And with that, she got the last word.

In the end, there was no true end to the ladybird invasion. In time, I gave in and stopped trying to kill them. They never bit me again, and I didn’t really hate them. In fact, I grew rather proud of them, so much so that when my parents came to visit, I introduced them to my ladybird swarm. “See, they like us, aren’t they kinda cute?”

“Very nice, sweetie,” my mom said.

“Yeah, we don’t usually have quite so many as we have today, but it’s hot. Goes above eighty, we get over a hundred.” I scanned the main living area. There were well over a hundred red and bug ladybirds crawling around and circling the light fixture. “But when it cools off, numbers will go down, especially on cool nights.”

My dad looked up from his newspaper. “I think you’re getting used to mountain living.” As always, he was laconic in his remarks.

“Yes,” Mom beamed. “Crab cakes will be ready soon, sweetie.”

 

 

 




Moving to Front Royal: The Reign of the Stink Bug

Our not so trusty Honda Pilot

The kids and I moved five days after they started in their new schools on August 15, 2015. The move itself was crazy, and done in small and large parts. I began house hunting in a town called Linden, a suburb of Front Royal. A wonderful realtor named Sue Laurence from Re/Max helped us through the entire process. A word about Sue: she was the first person I met in Front Royal, and she’s a special lady. I’ve known and worked with a few realtors. Jim Souvagis was great–he helped us in Northern Virginia. Another lady helped us sell our last home, but she wasn’t like Sue from Front Royal. Sue is one of those genuinely kind humans who treat you well no matter your situation. She was kind to my kids, all of whom are quite outspoken, and who together form a tight triumvirate of friendly yet boisterous noisiness.

Anyway, Sue met us with a smile and treated me as well as a woman could ask to be treated. We viewed several cabin-style homes and eventually settled on a plan to build a new house. The lot I put an offer on had one of those crane-your-neck out the side of a back window views of a tiny lake. After putting down an offer and then talking more with my bank, I realized I wouldn’t qualify for a loan until our house in Northern Virginia sold. And it wasn’t selling, or would it sell for another three months. It looked like I could lose my entire deposit–but I was lucky. The sellers countered with a request that I increase the escrow amount, so this gave me a way out of the contract.

Nonetheless, I had nowhere to move the kids; I had no home, other than the old one that wouldn’t sell. I was in a fix here, and it seemed impassable. I had already signed the kids up for school in Front Royal. I was committed and obdurately set on getting them into their new schools by the start of the year. I didn’t want to put them through the hell of a midyear transition. But still “she persisted,” as the slogan on one of my t-shirts says. School was starting in a week. I had nowhere to live. I couldn’t buy a house, not yet. I’d have to rent.

Sue at this point worked an actual miracle. She knew a guy of Indian descent—an engineer who lived alone in a tiny chalet in the neighborhood I would later buy a house in, but I’ll leave out the name for the sake of my family’s privacy. Sue knew the engineer because she had represented him on his own house purchase. Anyway, this man was about to take a three-month sabbatical, and he would, Sue thought, be happy to rent the chalet out to me while he was pursuing his spiritual enlightenment.

Two days later, we viewed the chalet, and the kids and I fell in love with it. It’s almost impossible to describe the serenity and peace this chalet breathed with its every last molecule. The inside, mind you, was stripped down. The kitchen could’ve been out of a traveler’s mobile home. There was only 1200 square feet, with one bedroom downstairs and two more upstairs. But it didn’t matter. When you stood on the deck and looked outward, you saw over top ash and maples a stunning palette of mountain splendor. The house itself was near the top of the tallest peak in Front Royal, and at night, explained the engineer, the lights of the valley glittered like several thousand dots of brightly-colored candy. A breeze rushed through the wrap-around porch, and you could see for miles in all directions. We could be safe here, and like one of the characters in my book The Unlikely Prophet, when you scanned the horizon, you could spot danger before it got close enough to hurt you.

I found the money to pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent, which was modest. For a week, the kids attended school via a long commute from our old home, and I spent the days hiking Skyline drive and writing in the library while they got accustomed to their new teachers. I also dealt with another not small emergency. The SUV I had purchased nine days earlier collapsed in a loud, thunking unbearable clunk—which is the sound a vehicle makes when its transmission dies. I spent days trying to figure out a better option. The teachers at the elementary school thought I was of woman of substantial means, because I kept driving different cars, including a zippy but tiny blue Mini Cooper. But finally, with a steadfast friend at my side during the three hour negotiation process, I leased a Mazda CX-5. The credit manager took one look at my desperate face after he explained that divorce destroys everyone’s credit, including to my shock my own, and gave me a good interest rate. He “vouched” for me, which was a kindness I would encounter many more times in my journey as a single mom.

Speaking of kindness, the engineer left the chalet furnished, so we didn’t have to undergo an expensive and difficult move. Instead, we borrowed a dear neighbor’s minivan and moved some of our possessions into the chalet. The drive up the mountain to our new home took us on roads that twisted around steep hillsides, and I soon learned the intricacies of driving on nine-degrees grades that took you on S-curves. That first night, we stood on the porch and watched the sun glide down over the edge of our world and then disappear, and each one of us smiled.

Then we began to explore our mountain. I got settled into my writing routine, which consisted of typing on my iMac in the front living area while thirstily gazing out through wall-to-wall windows at the restive landscape that surrounded me. Patches of strawberries and blackberries weaved themselves into the ravine that collided with the back edge of our property. Ash trees and tall grasses, wildflowers and honeysuckle fanned out along the slope below. If you stood on the edge of the porch, especially when the fog rolled in, you felt like you were standing at the stern of a ship gazing out at edge of the world.

When I wasn’t writing or trying to figure out how to pay bills I couldn’t pay, I was wrapped up ever so tightly in the world of my children, just as they were tied to me. We grew closer and closer as the hot days of August gave way to the still steamy days of September. At night, the wind would blow in through our doors and windows, and when we slept, we dreamed to a chorus of crickets that hummed and blurted out ditties none of us understood. In the mornings, we stumbled out the front door, took a look at a sky that would never lose its hint of magic and fairy dust, and settled into the Mazda for a ride on streets that had names that evoked forests and mountain peaks.

In the afternoons, we walked and talked about life, about school, about all the tiny but telling matters that occupy a mother and her three children. The effect of moving to Front Royal was immediate. We saw good augurs everywhere. My daughter made friends the very first day—friends who remain close a few years later. My middle child not only wasn’t ostracized for his long hair but met two other long-haired boys on the first day. And my youngest drew the longest stick in the lottery of teachers: he was assigned to an energetic, positive, just completely wonderful male teacher. The kids, in other words, were flourishing, which was not something that could have been said about their experiences in what is lauded to be one of the best school systems in the country: Fairfax County. To this day, all three Phoenix children are happy here in Warren County.

Meanwhile, we got our first taste of mountain living. I quickly learned it takes strength, fortitude and courage to put down roots in a world where deer and bear and other critters truly own the land you live on. When you drive down the mountain, you had better go slow on the hairpin turns lest you run over wild turkey, a fox, or God help everyone, a skunk. Deer walk up to you and stare at you, which isn’t a bad thing, but bears come onto your porch and snatch apple pies out of your kitchen windows up here on our mountain. More troubling, however, are the creatures who co-inhabit your home with you.

It started with the stink bugs. Also known as the brown marmorated stink bug, these stinky buggers “invade homes in the fall. Thousands can invade a single home. In fact, in one home more than 26,000 stinkbugs were found.”

These beasts entered our chalet by fitting under the wood siding. And they came in through the windows. They trotted in under the doorframes. They fell from the very sky into our front room via the chimney. Any opening big enough to fit through brought in more of them, and our chalet was a holey thing. It lacked weather-stripping and other sophistications you get accustomed to when you live in a suburb. And we didn’t have A/C, so the windows were always open.

Some nights, we’d spend hours hunting the mottled grayish-brown monsters. My daughter retreated to her bedroom often in a panic—only to find a stink bug grinning at her from under her pillow. One night, we had our first and only fight while living in the chalet. It went like this.

“Madeline, you need to practice your clarinet.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“There’s stink bugs in my room, I’m not going.”

“Come on, you need to go practice,” I said.

“Hell no, I’m not going.”

“But you need to sleep tonight too.”

“Not going.”

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

“Not going,” she said.

“Come on, come upstairs with me,” I said.

“No way.”

“Come on, this won’t kill you.”

“Will too, they’re evil.”

“They’re ugly yes, but they don’t harm anyone.”

“Will too.”

“How?”

“Psychological torment,” she said.

This argument went on for quite some time. Like an hour. It grew heated. I yelled, she yelled. Finally I vanquished all stink bugs as well as any sign of any other bug, insect, beetle or living creature in her room. I got Jim to scan the hallway, Ben to survey the upstairs bathroom. Madeline entered her bedroom, and broke out her clarinet. But it wasn’t over. She never did get over the beastly brown monsters.

My sons were stalwart. And I remained brave—until one landed on my upper thigh in the dead of night. I jumped at least ten feet in the air in uncontained shock . . . and then I killed it. And we killed an entire dust buster in a misbegotten attempt to vacuum up the little serenity-robbers. After a month or two, I attained a new Zen state which admittedly resembled more a defeated resignation to our cohabitation.

And that’s when the ladybugs came.

Stay tuned for the next blog for more on life in Front Royal—and the menacing attack of the “Coccinellidae,” or the plural “Coccinellids,” which is the species more popularly known as the ladybug.

 




Front Royal: Why I Moved West

Two years ago and two months, I moved with my three children to Front Royal, Virginia. For you Jersey natives who go by exits, that’s exit 13 off Route 66, which runs from DC all the way to its end point thirteen miles west of Front Royal. If you’re looking at a map, this is also where I-66 intersects with I-81 North and South. I-81 also has a story of its own: it runs from its northern terminus at the tip of New York, just shy of the Canadian border, to its southern end point in Dandridge Tennessee. As Wikipedia explains, “Interstate 81 largely traces the paths created down the length of the Appalachian Mountains by migrating animals, American Indians, and early settlers. It also follows a major corridor for troop movements during the Civil War.”

I could have settled anywhere in Virginia, but something deep inside me told me to head due west. I picked Front Royal as our new home when my marriage was coming to a grinding end. That last year, when things got hairy at our home in Northern Virginia, my kids and I (especially the corner kids) would leave for an adventure. Sometimes we headed south to Fountainhead Park for a hike along the Occoquan River, but usually we went west. Like early settlers, we were searching for something akin to freedom, and when we went west, we took an exit that read: I-66 West—Front Royal. It might sound too simple, but I basically chose a new home based on a feeling it gave me when I drove in its direction.

While driving west, I felt safe inside. The kids and I would journey through Front Royal until we arrived at the northern tip of the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. We’d drive along the twisting road called “Skyline Drive,” where the speed limit is 35, until we reached a good hiking spot. By the way, as an aside, Skyline Drive was built during the Depression, when the government initiated a working program called the Civilian Conservation Corps to put the unemployed to work. The CCC was a beautiful project in the sense that it gave the men working under it a means to maintain their own homes and families.

Anyway, we’d drive to the northern entrance of Skyline drive and stop at the gate to speak with a ranger. I bought an Interagency Annual pass for $80 that allows you to visit more than 2,000 federal parks an unlimited number of times over the year. We use the heck out of our Annual Pass(es). Anyway, I’d talk to the ranger for a couple minutes, and then we’d head north on Skyline Drive. I’ve always been a fast-lane kind of driver, but driving fast and driving on Skyline Drive don’t mesh. It’s one of those inconsistencies that life throws at you to teach you a lesson. In my case, the lesson is patience. Once we were inside the park, we’d drive at an impossibly slow speed because of the trailers and out-of-towners who meander along as if every drive were a Sunday drive.

You can hike almost anywhere you want in the Shenandoahs, but we have found some special spots. Our favorite hike back then was at mile 19.4, where several trails extend out on Hogback Mountain. As Hiking Upwards states, “The Hogback Mountain hike, with its spectacular views west towards the Massanutten ranges, is located in an area of the SNP that has several beautiful hikes including Piney Branch and Little Devil Stairs. With just over 1,200ft of vertical gain and 7.5 miles, this is a pleasant moderate day hike.”

If you wanted to look up the trail names (which include the beautifully titled “Little Devils Stair Trail”) you can go here. The parking lot for Hogback is full in the summer and fall, but pretty deserted in November and through the winter. Once you park, you can choose a direction or route. Instead of following a loop, I always go on down and backs because I have the tendency to get lost. Growing up, my children accepted my version of getting lost. I’d giggle and say, “we’re taking a ‘longcut’ kids.” That works great when you’re driving your SUV, but it’s not so great when your “childers” have to hike your longcut.

So I go with the safest way of hiking for me: a down and back. This term simply refers to a hike where you go aways and then turn and come back the other way. Hogback isn’t easy, but it’s deceptive, because you go down a big hill for an hour and you’re happy. Then you turn around and realize, “Oh man, we’re going uphill until we reach the car.” Or if you turn the phrase around you come up with: “we won’t reach the car unless we make it back up that hill.”

Back up the Hill

As we walked and talked down then back up Hogback, we’d plan for our future. I need to take a longcut right now around a hard subject. My divorce.

I’ve been almost spectral-quiet about the divorce. And I’ll probably remain that way. Like a lot of women who went through the sort of thing I did, I am still scared of getting in trouble. I also don’t think it’s fair to use my platform to say whatever I want to say about my ex-husband. This goes at odds with my usual way of speaking, which is to be honest and straightforward, and to speak about the most personal matters without fear. So I’ve been paralyzed a bit, at least on this blog, for over two years now. Yet I feel like I’ve worked it out in my writing. My characters are free to tell my story, sort of, but it’s fictional there and it feels safe. And I’ve finally came to a place where I realize my need to speak freely is more important than my need to speak freely about every aspect of my life, and that one aspect I need to keep private for my family’s sake is the saga of my divorce.

So (I hope) that’s all I’ll ever say directly about why I left.

All of that is a long aside, and I want to end on a happy note.

It’s been almost three years now, and these visits to Hogback took me to a place where I felt safe enough to figure out my next steps. It’s also where I found my new home—off exit 13, in the small town of Front Royal. In the upcoming days, I’m going to write about how we settled here. There will be stories about stinkbugs and ladybugs, mice invasions and mouse family holocausts. I’ll talk about adapting to a smaller, more modest lifestyle in a place where ironically enough the distance between my neighbors is much larger than it used to be. And I’ll talk about how people help one another feel at home in my new home: Front Royal.

Please grab a chair and make yourselves at home. With me. In my new home that’s far, far away from the old hell I used to write about when this blog was titled, “Running from Hell with El.” Because now, I’m walking Home, and I’m walking there with friends and family always at my side.

We all need a place we call home, and now, that place for us is Front Royal.




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