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Confusion Reigns: Driving and Talking about Everything

Confusion reigns. I glance into the bottom of my mug and swirl the chamomile tea around. I ignore the brown spots on the bottom. They’re from a basil plant that occupied the cheap white mug with the light blue dots and a “J” inscribed on the side. When I tried to scrub it last night, my husband said that next time I should use the mug with red dots that is marked with a “B.” I groaned and kept cleaning out the dirt stains.

“B” for “basil” he added, and then I laughed.

“That’s a good idea, but it’s yucky.” While he was talking, I finished scrubbing most the dirt off and put it in the dishwasher, which never gets all the debris off anything. That’s why I love and hate dishwashers.

Now I’m staring at the same patch of brown that grazes the bottom. It’s like staring into tea leaves except there’s no hidden meaning, other than dishwashers don’t replace hands holding brushes.

I finish the last sip. It’s morning. I’m writing.

He comes in carrying his iPad and five documents he needs to scan. He’s listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers. “They sound good, I was in the mood for them,” he explains, “Their lyrics are scrambled, but sometimes they kill it.” The song, “Scar Tissue” is playing, and these words float to me:

With the birds I’ll share this lonely view.

With the birds I’ll share this lonely view.

My back aches and I hear it raining outside. The water drips down the drain spout. I stand up and then lie down and wait while he scans documents and I think about the song. I’ve always loved it. So many people, ones I’ve never met, never will meet, love it too, and we probably don’t gain the same thing from it, except for the feeling of alienation it suggests.

The water still drips down the drain spout. When it comes out it sounds like a machine gun rumbling and tapping against the asphalt. Maybe machine gun is too extreme. Maybe it’s more like the tapping of fingers on a keyboard. But water can be a weapon; after all, it’s more powerful than earth if it rains hard enough. I would take a walk in it but I’m cold and don’t want to get soaked.

I think, I’m confused, so is Maddie, she knows this feeling all too well, it’s the main theme in her new project, which she’s stubbornly titled, “Where the F*** Are You? The book is about two teenagers, growing up confused and angry in a messed-up world. They’re awake. They remember God. They love Him. And yet the main character, Cass (named Cassia by her mother, a herbalist struggling with bipolar disorder) feels like God isn’t helping. Why won’t God come down and fix this shit, Cassia or Cass asks herself. So she’s angry.

I love this book idea, because a lot of souls are angry too. I want to help Cass sort it out. But I have to wait for Maddie to write the main chapters because it’s her project. Not mine, not yet, but it will be in time, just like all her books become joint works. It’s just how it goes. We work. The world cries. We write about the world crying and try to give hope. Meanwhile, it keeps raining and it’s gonna rain all day.

Meanwhile, Maddie’s angry with God too. Why is the world so messed up? Why is our book not getting picked up? Why do churches preach hate not love? Why am I here? She asks these questions, and I just listen.

She makes me read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. We discuss it in the car on the way into school. “The writing is brilliant, I can’t do all the things she does,” I say.

“But your dialogue is better, and that’s where you put your great descriptions—”

“—I still can’t weave a depressing story about childhood into an equally depressing story about a woman who’s messed up from childhood, the way the book’s going, she’s going to cheat on her husband.” I think about some of Atwood’s descriptions. She uses words like “undulates” and I never can find that word when I’m writing. It’s not one of my words. I don’t explain this; instead, I turn the temperature gauge to the right to warm up the Jeep. It’s not that cold but I’m freezing.

“She does cheat, and it’s like it’s because she had such a bad childhood.” Maddie touches the switch that controls the seat heater.

I notice the Jeep is driving better since we got the tire fixed. The road feels more stable underneath the weight of our four Coopers. They’re American-built and we try to buy American. This is new for me. Buying American. I feel bad knowing my new computer was made in China. They use slave labor. I keep thinking when I learn these things, but I didn’t know, and then I chastise myself for not knowing because there’s things that do matter, like treating souls right when they’re here on earth. I think too much, people say, but not thinking is no defense. It just means you don’t know anything or you don’t know what you should. It’s like plausible deniability if you’re a president. Iran-Contra—and that was a President I liked. I speak of none of this and wrestle with my coffee mug. If I don’t grasp the handle right, the coffee spills and then I’m grabbing napkins from the side pocket and all that’s distracting, especially when you’re driving down a mountain.

“And you also write good action scenes, the best.”

“My action’s okay.” I speak in half-sentences too often. Right now, I’m stuck on the main character having an affair. “Ugh she cheats?” I flip the windshield wiper on. It’s raining, or as Atwood would say, spitting. That’s the term the Canadians use. “That’s awful, I can’t believe she does that.”

“Yeah, with her abusive ex-husband, and I bet Atwood cheats too, she writes the scenes so convincingly.”

We’re quiet for a moment. I wonder if she’s going to correct her use of an adverb. Ever since I told her about Hemingway’s distaste for them, Maddie has excised them from her work. I have too, more or less. We’re ridiculous sometimes, I also think, but I’m stuck on Atwood.

“Yeah, it’s a mistake, I wish she didn’t cheat,” I say. I ease off the brakes on as we head into a tight curve. It’s not foggy but I’m tired and my coffee doesn’t have enough cream in it because we ran out and forgot to get more last night. So I sip as I drive down the mountain and wish I had more cream in my coffee because if I did, I’d drink faster and that might make me feel more awake.

We are awake. That’s the scary thing. We both know how messed up the world is. I don’t say this, but I’m thinking about the President, and the blog I wanted to write about the President’s lawyer. It would be a balanced piece about the Code of Ethics that governs lawyers. A different code governs attorney conduct in each state, and the President’s lawyer is probably licensed in New York. But no state Code of Ethics would allow a lawyer to pay hush money to his client’s ex-lover out of the lawyer’s personal accounts. You’re not supposed to pay bribery funds or extortion demands, for one thing. And even if that were somehow ethical, a lawyer is not supposed to commingle funds or use his personal accounts to pay folks on his client’s behalf. It’s so far beyond the pale of what’s acceptable . . . and yet it was done. Stormy Daniels either bribed the President or was she extorted? I don’t know what happened exactly. But it makes me mad. It’s not right. Funny, the things I don’t know. Funny, the things my daughter already knows. Like when I talked to Maddie about it, I called the President’s ex-lover “Stormy Davis” and Maddie corrected me. “It’s Daniels,” she said, and I wondered how she knew so much about the dirty side of living.

I shake my head. Maddie also wrote a blog but it’s personal. It’s called, “He Loves Her,” and in it, Maddie analyzes song lyrics by Pearl Jam and Eminem. The Eminem song in particular shows a man who abuses a woman and why, and how this makes Maddie feel. It’s personal. And the blog itself is beautiful. Should I try to submit it to a magazine, I wonder? I don’t have time but I should. I never have enough time anymore, not for my writing, not for hers too.

We’re listening to one of Pink’s songs and we both love it. I wonder if the boys, who are sitting with their backpacks stacked side to side, red fabric rubbing against blue, in the second row, like it too, but I don’t ask, because Maddie’s talking some more. She wants to help a friend who’s struggling in school, and the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” might apply, but Maddie worries and wants to help. I have advised Maddie to be a friend first, and also to take care of her own work, but I’ve also smiled to myself while listening to Maddie repeat aloud the same sort of words I would use. I’m hard on her. I expect a lot. Do I expect too much?I ask myself. And then Maddie’s saying, “She’s really got to care about school, if she doesn’t do well now, she won’t do well junior year, she needs to get into a good college, she needs to get off her phone and study more, she needs to have confidence in herself, why won’t she ask her teacher for help? Teachers are there to help, that’s their job, I’m so worried, she really needs to get her grades up . . .” and so on and so on.

We’re already thinking about SAT prep, and Maddie’s visiting the University of Oregon in June. Because she knows already that after she graduates from UVA, she’ll get her doctorate in English from Oregon. Are we crazy? I don’t know.

Pink pleads, “Please don’t leave me.”

The birds have a lonely view. With them we share this, all of us. And yet we’re not alone, we just feel like we are. And that last sentence, the one with the comma, that’s for Atwood. She uses commas in ways I wouldn’t. But she’s great. And her main character is frail. I want to forgive her. Maybe that’s what Atwood’s asking for too. Or maybe she just wants to be understood.

Then she won’t feel so lonely.

 




Van Crashes Into Our Yard

So it’s Friday night and we’re driving home from Northern Virginia. It’s an ordinary night in most ways. Like any other Friday night after we’ve dropped the kids off for a visit with their father. We didn’t go straight home; instead, we stuck around in Northern Virginia for a few hours afterwards. Picked up a few riders for Uber. Paid for our gas I suppose. And stopped at a casual but brilliant restaurant in Vienna that served up light shrimp tacos with a panache and brilliance that delighted me. The tacos only cost $4 apiece, and that made me happy too.

A little later, we’re driving on Route 66, heading westward. We’re at about exit 43, right between Manassas and Centreville for those of you who are familiar with what exit corresponds with what neighborhood in the I-66 corridor. I’m a little sleepy. It’s about 10:30 and it’s been a long day. With an almost absent-minded glance, I checked Facebook messages. I spotted a text from my neighbor Jen, who lives three houses down from me. It’s somewhat unusual to hear from Jen this late at night. I thought to myself, Hope she’s okay.

Then I click over and read her message.

“El, you need to come outside right now!”

“Um, I can’t, I’m 45 minutes away from home.”

“Okay, there’s a van crashed in your yard.

“Come again?” Now I was reading aloud from my spot in the passenger seat. “There’s a van crashed in my yard?”

“Yes, it flipped a few times and it’s stuck in the side yard.”

“Have you called the cops, the ambulance?”

I almost didn’t need to ask this question. Jen is an Air Force mechanic. Our other neighbor Scott is some sort of officer, I believe in the Air Force. And in general, these are mountain people, and they’re accustomed to emergency situations. Still I asked. And she replied:

“Yes, been called.”

“Okay, is the driver okay? Is the house okay? What about our cars?”

“He’s okay, he’s bloodied, concussed but walked from scene. Obviously had been drinking, didn’t want us to call cops.”

I smiled to myself. Thinking, Jen called the cops anyway, as she damn well should have. Whether the fellow was drunk or not, he needed medical assistance. Then I go back to reading her messages, which are brief and calm.

“The van is in the side yard. The only thing damaged possibly is your septic tank. Car’s okay. House is okay.”

“Okay, I’ll be home in 37 minutes, eta is 11:15.”

We made it home at 11:10 by taking the back road, which is called Massanutten. It’s a poorly-maintained private road that leads into our development. It isn’t paved and it experiences frequent rock slides, but when it’s passable it saves five minutes off our commute. And our Jeep can handle pretty much anything it throws at us. Fortunately that night the Massanutten’s tricks did not include any broken walls or rocks piles.

At 11:09, We pulled up to a light show. There was a fire truck, an ambulance and a red tow truck parked on the side of the gravel road that overlooks our side yard. After I ran inside to grab warmer gear, I made a quick assessment: there was in fact a van situated in the middle of our side yard. This was a fact in evidence, undeniable, incontrovertible. An avoidable fact—and a problem, I thought to myself. There was no more avoiding it than there’s avoiding a death that involves someone you care about—and again, I gave thanks that I already had some sort of warning. The note from Jen reduced the shock of seeing it.

It’s hard to explain the emotion you feel when a van’s sitting in your yard: fear, confusion, astonishment, or simply that feeling you get when you’re given a puzzle in elementary school and asked to identify an object that’s out of place. A van in the yard is not quite as inopposite as, say, a dolphin swimming in your living room—but it nonetheless makes a jarring appearance. An interesting one as well. You’re driven to figure out how and why it got there.

After I pulled on a hat and warm gloves, I climbed up the driveway and looked for Jen. She was dressed in extreme weather gear and was standing beside her husband Rob as well as three of our other neighbors: Missy and Scott, who live next door to us, and A.J., who owns the house three or four yards down from where the van driver lives as a renter. Everyone started talking at once, just about the same time the tow truck driver asked if I was the homeowner, and the fire truck gunned its engine and drove to the end of the street looking for a place to turn around, and the ambulance wheeled into a driveway and executed a sharp U-Turn.

Jen explained the accident scene to me. “Here’s where he started to slide, then he over-corrected, and he rolled down to the right, hit the septic tank, then rolled in the other direction.” She pointed to a spot on the road, which is gravel with dirt shoulders, and then used her hands to demonstrate the route the van took.

“And he’s been picked up by the ambulance, you say he’s okay?”

“He’ll be okay,” A.J. volunteered.

Someone there added, “Said he’d only had a few drinks.”

“Don’t know how he walked exactly, he didn’t want me to call an ambulance, but he was bleeding, obviously concussed,” Jen said.

“Yeah, Scott had to pull him out, he was bleeding, couldn’t get out without help,” Rob said. He was holding a cigar, and as we watched the scene, which was never the same from moment to moment, we talked about his recent motorcycle accident, and how he was recovering from it. A few months back, he crashed his bike up right good and he’s gotten back on the horse, so to speak, and has ridden again, but he’s still struggling with possibly permanent damage to his neck.

Meanwhile, my husband stood beside me, and we watched and chatted and waited for the tow truck to make its first go at pulling the van out. Since it was dark out, it was hard to get a good visual of the van. As far as I could tell, it was a busted up ancient nondescript gray or light blue van, but A.J. later explained that the driver had just bought it a little while back to help with his moving business. Later I would identify it as a four or five year old Honda Odyssey, which is a top-of-the-line minivan, but from the top of our ravine, it just looked battered and old.

A.J. kept talking about the renter. I picked up bits and pieces that I needed. Like: “He was saying the other day that he took out an extended warranty on it, I know he loved that thing.”

Good, I thought, then he’s insured.

At this point, a scraggly-haired young man approached me. He was with Henderson Towing. Had a bright yellow jacket atop a burly frame. In fact, I’ve never met a tow truck driver who didn’t look somewhat like this guy: tough, brawny, fast-talking, competent. “You’re the homeowner?”

“I am.”

“I’m thinking of pulling it out from the bottom, otherwise we’ll have to pull it up over all those rocks.” The tow guy gestured to our yard, which is covered with scores of massive boulders and too many trees to count. One day, my husband and I tried to count the trees, but we got bored and quit at 100. So there’s a lot of trees, and there’s even more rocks, peppered throughout our acre of land. There’s so many rocks, in fact, that the prior owners built three rows of almost English or Irish-style rock walls in the main yard, and the bottom of these serves as a sort of retaining wall. To protect the house from, you know, vans that crash into the yard.

“So you’d have to come down the driveway?” My husband had his hands in his pockets, as did I. Unlike me, he was not shivering from the cold mountain air. At this point, it was about 20 degrees.

“Yeah,” I added, “If you do, that’s fine, do we need to move any of our trucks?” I was referring to our two SUVs, a Ford Expedition and a Jeep Commander.

“Yeah, I want to go down your driveway, nope, don’t have to move anything,” said the tow truck driver.

“Okay,” I said.

Our neighbors were still talking, except for Jen, who went inside because the driver was safely departed and she had to get some rest.

My husband and I walked down the hill and stood at the bottom of our driveway between the Jeep and the Ford.

What we ended up watching was something like a circus, or roller derby absent the bang-ups. Despite his confidence and ability, when the tow guy pulled his 550 into the yard and tried to go uphill, he hit icy patches on the grass. He begin to scissor sideways and down, and all of this was noisy, because he kept gunning his diesel and the tires were screaming and the engine was growling and he was hollering I think through it all . . . and that’s when he came to a resting position about five feet from the ravine that waits at the bottom of our back yard. I don’t know what it waits for, other than sleds that run too fast or SUVs that slide out of control down the icy driveway; all I know is that the ravine’s almost the sum of all my physical crashing fears.

The tow truck driver then got even busier. He winched his 550 to a tree, and called down one of his assistants to help back the truck out of the yard, using the winch to guide it, until they could turn it around and drive it back to the top of our hill. That took about fifteen minutes. We watched and tried not to smile. Not mean smiles. We were rooting for the tow guy. But the whole thing was damn near as exciting as watching a roller derby. Meanwhile, the young man, the tow guy, he talked with me a little. Said he was 30, lived pretty close, up one on of the other mountains, and he had a wife and three kids, all of them under six. Then he said he was calling his boss. “We need Big Bird,” he said, and explained, “Big Bird has a 650.”

“I like its name,” I said. “Big Bird.”

“Uh huh.”

“But you might need a helicopter,” I said, and I giggled.

He shook his head grimly and climbed up the driveway.

It wasn’t over yet. I had to talk to the police officer. He was slim, had a pencil-thin mustache, and he had a kind way about him. He got my name and number and gave me the case report. Told me everything would work out okay, and I told him I was grateful he was out here in the cold, taking care of our mess.

“It’s my job,” he said.

“Nonetheless I’m grateful you’re here to do it,” I said.

Some time passed. We were still waiting for Big Bird, which pulled up after another half-hour. I was running out of words, so was my husband. The other neighbors were still talking, especially A.J. and Rob. Missy was her usual sweet self. She was the one who helped me when I got locked out my first night here, but that’s another story. And Scott was quietly sweet. Amid all this, the temperature was dropping.

My husband and I went inside to warm up for a few minutes, and that’s when we heard a lot more noise.

“Hmmm, wanna go see?” I stood up sleepily from the sofa. It was almost one a.m.

My husband shook his head and chuckled. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

So we pulled on coats and hats and gloves and climbed back up the hill. At this point, there were two cables attached to the front of the minivan, anchored to two of the tow trucks. And slowly, almost glacially, the minivan was getting dragged up the hill backwards. It was noisy, and the lead tow truck driver got into the minivan to try to steer it so that it didn’t come up over the largest rock in its path. He even took his jacket off, and was sweating. A lot of things fell off the minivan on its final journey up our side yard. The front bumper tore completely off, and at one point the side door looked like it might fall off, but two of the Henderson guys managed to manually slide it shut.

The minivan pivoted towards our house once it reached the apex of the hill. That’s when I got a good look at it. Saw that all eight of its airbags had deployed, and all four sides of it had taken a beating.

“Rolled at least once,” the officer said.

“Won’t be driving ever again, that’s for sure,” Rob or A.J. said.

“Yep, totaled,” I said.

The Henderson guys got the van up on one of their lifts. And that’s when we said goodnight to everyone. We didn’t stand at the top of our hill and watch the trucks drive away. Instead, we waved goodnight, hiked down our driveway one last time, and stumbled into bed. It was 1:30, and all I could think was how long a night it was for the responders, the police officer, the EMTs, the tow truck guys, my neighbors who helped the driver, and how grateful I was that there were good, reliable people who took care of oddities like vans that end up crashed in your side yard.




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.




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?




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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