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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.

 

 




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.




When the Legal System Fails: The DAPL Protests Part 2

. . . I read all of this with interest, and at first I found myself thinking, “Well, maybe the tribe didn’t follow the right procedures, I wonder what that means about the rightness of their protest itself.” But then I recalled my own work as a member of a community, fighting for safer walking trails and lowered speed limits on a road that passed in front of my children’s school. Basically, the citizens of my community banded together to petition for a lowered speed limit, flashing safety lights and a school speed zone, and for reasons complex and frankly silly, the state highway officials as well as the school board opposed passing our safety measures. For years, different people fought to get these safety measures passed, and the issue really came to a head when a child died crossing the street. Still, the state and the school board said, “No” to increased safety measures on our parkway.

Part Two

So we took it to our local political officials as well as to the governor of our state. A local politician formed a committee that included a few citizens, the school’s PTA president, as well as officials from the school board and the state highway safety folks. We would meet once a month, and we’d barter, negotiate, argue . . . but it looked like nothing would get done. Eventually, we came up with an odd but effective tactic to get our school zone sign and our flashing lights. The school wanted to get a hundred million dollar renovation approved by the County. Knowing the way county government land use law works, one citizen suggested that we appear before the zoning board and announce our conditional opposition to the renovation absent the approval of increased safety measures. A few of us in fact showed up at the zoning board, and we made a fifteen-minute presentation. Our measures got approved on the spot.

In other words, we did an end-around the county. We weren’t being heard, even though we were talking and talking and talking. We never stopped talking, mind you, but we went to a different governmental actor, and we found a way to get the complex strands of American democracy to work in our favor. We got a democratic body to strong-arm another arm of government to give us the safety measures we wanted.

When I survey what’s going on with the Tribe and the DAPL, I see a similar tactic being used. The Tribe didn’t think it could get anywhere with the Army Corps or with the pipeline company. Sure, the Tribe tried to use the legal system and the existing governmental processes to oppose the pipeline, and it certainly could be argued that they could have tried harder or used different legal tactics to oppose construction. But my sense from studying the case is that the Tribe (like so many other tribes and like so many citizens) has been down this road before, and it hasn’t been heard.

Indeed, the judge in the D.C. court case recognized just how little Native Americans have been served by our democratic and legal processes:

“Since the founding of this nation, the United States’ relationship with the Indian tribes has been contentious and tragic. America’s expansionist impulse in its formative years led to the removal and relocation of many tribes, often by treaty but also by force.” Cobell v. Norton, 240 F.3d 1081, 1086 (D.C. Cir. 2001). Id. at 1.

The American legal and political system, in other words, has not been a particularly just one as far as tribal rights are concerned. Anything but, in far too many cases.

I think the Tribe recognized the real politics at hand. At the heart of its protest has been an effort to garner awareness and use the resulting outrage as leverage to impel democratically elected politicians to take up the tribe’s cause. In other words, the legal challenge itself was irrelevant, and so too were early negotiations with the Army Corps or the pipeline company. The Tribe knew the results were stacked against it; the Tribe also knew that it could obtain better results through appeals to the people of our nation. Indeed, this worked, at least initially: President Obama ordered a temporary halt to pipeline construction the same day the D.C. court ruled against the tribe.

“Construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time,” said a joint statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army. “We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

It could be said that the Tribe is not really concerned about sacred or historically relevant cultural sites, but is using that as a convenient excuse to oppose the pipeline. But it could and should also be said that the Tribe is really trying to save our nation’s water supply. If this is true, the way the legal and regulatory system is set up precludes the Tribe from effectively fighting the pipeline.

By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, in our legal system, you must have “standing”, or an actual legal interest in whatever you’re objecting to or protesting. Since the Tribe’s water supply may not be directly impacted by the pipeline, the Tribe lacks a legal interest in wherever the pipeline is being built. I find this argument to be true in some ways, but it misses the point of what it means to be a Native American. From an early age, Native Americans are taught that it is their duty to protect our land and our water. They are taught that the land has life as well as life-giving spirit.

The rest of us Americans are taught to “think globally, but act locally.” Most of the time, we don’t get involved in the political system unless our own property or our families are threatened by a proposed or ongoing public measure. It’s only when a pipeline or a well or a manufacturing plant or some other externality-creating monstrosity is about to be built in our backyard that we take to the courts or the local and state governmental bodies. We are the consummate self-interested actors. We don’t get involved unless we are interested in and have an interest in a problem.

The Tribe is thinking and acting both locally and globally. The Tribe sees that the pipeline is being built near its water supply, but also realizes that the pipeline will pass by or through or under major rivers like the Missouri. The Tribe sees that the pipeline thus could harm other communities or other bodies of water that exist outside the tribe’s land. And it also sees that the energy companies cannot be trusted to comply with safety measures that will keep the water supply alive and healthy. The Tribe doesn’t trust the government to enforce its own laws on the environment; after all, what has our government shown Native Americans as far as its willingness to obey its own laws and treaties?

The Tribe is protesting more than desecrations to its own land. It is seeking to protect all life, both within and outside its borders. The Tribe says that “Water is life,” and this would sound like a cliché were it not the simple truth. We cannot go more than three days without water and live. And as the citizens of Flint Michigan can tell you, our nation cannot destroy its citizens’ water supply without the citizens suffering deleterious health consequences.

Sometimes I think we as a nation have become actually addicted to oil. When I bring up the issue of saving the water, logical people ask me, “Well, if we stop producing and transporting oil and using it for our energy needs, then what? How will we power our cars, our houses, our other energy needs?” I always shake my head and answer honestly. I don’t know. But I know that the current processes we are using to produce energy are damaging the environment. And I know that we need to re-think energy. We need to figure out a better way to produce and use energy, because the way we’re doing it now is hurting Mother Earth. We need her. We need to protect her.

11-09-fotofluege-cux-allg-25a

Oil Field Mittelplate in the North Sea By Ralf Roletschek [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

I know. We need our cars. We need our houses heated. Clean energy is too expensive, too hard to produce . . . oil and coal are cheap. I get it. The economics of the environment are complex. Simply saying we need clean energy doesn’t get us the clean or cleaner fuel we need. But do we need to get the fuel the way we’re getting it to live? Is this the best way? Or is there a better way?

The Tribe says we’re hurting the land. The Tribe says that building another massive oil pipeline is going to hurt our water. The real question is not whether we can live without oil, says the Tribe. It’s whether we can live without water. I think both questions need to be answered. But first, we need to listen to others when they ask the questions.

If you don’t think we can live without cheap oil, I challenge you to re-think your premises. Is there a better way? Can we spend less on other things, and spend more on the development of clean energy? Can we dedicate less of our GNP to other foreign entanglements and domestic items, and more to developing clean energy? And is what we’re doing to our land and water worth the long-term costs to its health—and by logical connection, since we depend on our water, to our health?

 

 

 

 

 

 




Shame is Not a Good Teacher

Shame is one of the worst emotions we can teach our children to feel. It’s difficult to wade through spirituality without finding shame, though. We see the hint of it, the strong suggestion of it, throughout Christian schooling as well as throughout the Bible. We see it in the story of David and Bathsheba, for example. We also see it embedded in the teachings of Paul in the New Testament. Far too many preachers and ministers take these stories or these scriptures and use the stories to make us feel terrible, and this isn’t a proper or the best use of the Bible.

The great Christian writer and teacher, C.S. Lewis, wrote about this in a 1952 letter. He wrote:

“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.” Letter November 8th 1952

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049156

By Scan of photograph by Arthur Strong, 1947 Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049156

We need more love-based, gentle teachings like those espoused by C.S. Lewis. We need to guide our children to the best path without using the weapons of shame and fear as our artillery against their spirit. When we focus on sinning and the blood of Jesus, we often cause pain and suffering in the exact people we’re trying to help. Basically, we are taught to feel shame when we “sin,” and then we are taught that Jesus died for or sins, and that in turn makes us feel even more ashamed for the mistakes we make as young men and women. Instead of feeling relieved, we feel sad and ashamed, and we carry that sadness and shame out of church into our daily lives. But aside from pain, what does feeling shame really give us?

It’s true that Jesus was crucified. It’s true that David made a big mistake by sleeping with Bathsheba. It’s also true we all make mistakes, both as children and as adults. Taking responsibility for our errors, for the hurts we cause others, can help us make better decisions in the future. But shame mires us in pain—and when we heap the death of Jesus on top of this pain, we end up suffering.

When we hold the image of a suffering man on the cross in our minds while we think about our actions, we end up replaying all our mistakes in a dread-inducing atmosphere. We get mired in sacrificial blood so to speak, rather than moving on to the real task of becoming the best people we can be. Carrying the cross is really not our job, but in effect that’s what we do when we obsess over concepts like sinning and sacrifice.

If we hold onto our mistakes and to the notion that every mistake we’ve made dirties us, we create a sort of hell on earth for ourselves. When we fear dying because we are afraid of what we will face after death because of the mistakes we make when we’re down here in our human shells, we end up afraid of living; we end up afraid of life. Priests and preachers should help guide us, but too many of them use fear as their cudgel.

For example, my children once attended a traditional Methodist church without me. And the kids listened to a lecture from the minister about how your sins down here on earth caused you to suffer judgment back Home. The minister gave a sermon in which he asked the members of the congregation to picture a stack of index cards laid out on a table. Imagine that you’ve died and have gone Home. You go up and even before you visit with your family and your friends, you go before a board or a council and you undergo a life review—all of which is accurate. We do go before a board and go over the good and the bad decisions we made throughout our lifetime, but in reality, the focus is much more positive than negative.

But the minister wanted the focus to be about sinning, so he said, “Jesus is waiting for you, and he will point out all your sins, and then he will show you all the same cards, but with blood smeared all over them. HIS blood. See, he gave up his blood so that all the awful things you do on earth won’t keep you from getting to heaven, but if you don’t atone now, you will have to explain yourselves to Jesus.”

When my kids told me this part of the sermon, I exclaimed, “No! This is fear-based, shame-engendering nonsense. Sure you’re not supposed to hurt others while you’re down here. You’re not allowed to rape or murder, you shouldn’t steal or tell lies to hurt others . . . but no one is waiting for you with blood-crusted index cards. The teaching back Home is much more positive. The aim isn’t to scare you or make you miserable; the goal is to emphasize areas where you did well, where you helped and served others, and to teach you places where you could have done better—all with the intent of helping you learn to do better, to become the best souls you can become.”

My children were a little confused, so we talked about it some more. They asked me what sort of mistakes could result in your getting punished after death, and of course I mentioned that killing, raping or sexually abusing others could get you punished, and as soon as I said that, my eldest asked about sex. About whether having sex could get you in trouble.

I shook my head and said, “Sex is not something to fear. Overall, it’s a positive and lovely thing that brings us joy, particularly when we experience it with someone we’re in love with and who we respect. We live in physical bodies. When religion emphasizes fear of our physicality, of what it causes us to do or to be or to enjoy, this is not good for us. Our bodies are built for certain things, and among those is sexual pleasure. It’s part of our human nature.”

the_kiss

By own photo of the sculpture of Rodin – own photo in the Rodin Museum, Paris, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4145510

“So should priests not be celibate?” My daughter asked.

I shrugged. “Celibacy has been touted as a virtuous accomplishment. In fact, it can also be a perversion of nature. Even though we are animals, and sex is one of the single most important instincts nature has given us, and perhaps the strongest of all of our instincts. It’s impossible to be human without embracing our sexuality, and true happiness and contentment are the rewards of a strong, loving relationship; this includes a sexual relationship.”

“So are you saying we shouldn’t be celibate? That it’s wrong for us to be deprived of sex? I thought you also taught that it’s okay to fast sometimes, Mom,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s good to fast, yeah,” I agreed. “But that’s not the point of celibacy. The point of celibacy is to find purity through deprivation, and fasting is another type of deprivation, but it reminds us that we are able to overcome our instincts, at least for a little while. No one can exist forever without eating, and I don’t know that it’s good to try to exist without satisfying our physical needs.”

“Might make it easier,” my son chipped in, “ Not to have to eat. Then you wouldn’t have to cook, and we wouldn’t be led by our donkey souls into eating so much junk food.”

I chuckled and nodded. “Well, that brings up an interesting point. Hunger is easy for us to understand. When people are starving, their morals quickly evaporate, and they take to stealing, fighting, and rioting to get food. Our bodies tell our brains that we’re in trouble, that we’ll die if we don’t get food soon, and the primitive part of our brains turn loose our most primitive emotions.”

“So are you saying we go crazy if we try not to have sex once we’re adults?” My daughter was trying not to smile.

“Not exactly, no. Maybe celibacy is fine for some people, I dunno. But in general, sex is perhaps our strongest instinct, because it represents how we express our love physically. We need to be able to express our love. We really need it, at least once we’re grown up and mature enough to handle all the emotions that come with it. So sexuality is a very strong instinct, and it’s tied into love. The way it’s taught though is like it’s a bad instinct. Sex is perhaps our strongest instinct, and yet it is to be ignored, restrained from or used as a weapon against us?”

How have you been taught about sexuality?

How would you teach your children differently?


David by Michelangelo; Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna (Own Source, Wikipedia)

David by Michelangelo; Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna (Own Source, Wikipedia).

When I say that we should use gentle, love-based teachings to guide our children and help them make good choices about their sexuality, I’m not saying anything goes. I don’t think we should teach our kids to simply do whatever they wish to do. We should teach our kids to value their bodies. We should teach our kids how to say no, either to other kids, or to adults who don’t respect proper boundaries. We should teach our children how to stay safe, and how to respect the safety and well-being of others.

Indeed, we have a duty to teach our sons in particular that “No” means “No,” and that a women’s body is hers alone to assert control and dominion over. We should teach our children that experiencing sexuality without love and commitment is something that will often leave them feeling empty and unfulfilled. We should teach them that sex is an adult act with adult consequences, such as pregnancy and disease. And we should help guide our children on a path that emphasizes discernment and the other side of free will: consequences.

Everything we do, after all, has consequences. But making the best choices occurs when we are unafraid and not laden with shame or dread. We should accept ourselves as well as seek responsibility for our actions, but we should not fear judgment or carry our mistakes as burdens. We should not feel ashamed, because shame is not a kind or a good teacher.




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