travel

Close-up #3: Captive

Last night—the last night of my East Coast trip with Smoke and Stump—I set the alarm on my iPhone for 5:20 am, and picked up my grandmother’s autobiography. The book has heft—not because it is especially long, but because she wrote it in 1984, typed it out on a typewriter, three-hole punched the single-sided pages, and bound them in a thick three-ring binder. To read it, I must sit cross-legged on the bed and lean over so that I can carefully turn the pages.

In the chapter I read last night, my grandmother described her family’s move from Kansas to Montana by railroad in the early 1900s. She was a young child at the time traveling with her parents, baby brother, pet horse, a dog, and several cows. My grandmother rode with her mother and brother in a passenger car, while her father rode with the livestock so that he could tend to them. The journey lasted several days, and my grandmother describes what it was like to ride with her mother, who nursed the baby, who changed and washed diapers on the train, who relied on the workers to bring fuel for the wood stove, who cooked meals of oatmeal, boiled potatoes, and beans, and who offered my grandmother snacks of peanuts and dried fruit.

I’m writing from the airplane now, somewhere between Boston and Seattle. Smoke is playing Angry Birds on the iPad and Stump, bless him, fell asleep some minutes ago while watching a movie. I know that it would be logical for me to write about how easy we have it in comparison to my ancestors. We are traveling by airplane not by rail. We are not hauling cattle. My children have devices that keep them entertained. A flight attendant just brought me a cup of Starbucks coffee. But I am actually more struck by the ways my experience may be similar to my great-grandmother’s, how the details of travel and transport may change, but the feelings of confinement and dependency remain.

Our flight this morning was delayed by two hours. Every so often an agent would get on the speaker and tell us to be ready, and then twenty minutes later they would announce the very same thing again. Though I had roused my kids at six am, dressed them, and carried them to the car, we did not board the plane until eleven. Once we were in the air, my children complained that they were ravenous. They didn’t want the cookies I had packed; they wanted real food. It didn’t matter how often I checked the progress of the food cart. It took another hour for it to reach us at the very back of the airplane where we sat and by that time they had sold out of most of their options. (I would have preferred a meal of boiled potatoes and beans to the box of prepackaged snacks I purchased.) By then, Stump had decided to move to my lap and so I tried to contain our snacks and drinks to the small tray in front of me, to somehow keep track of the various wrappers my kids created, to contain our bodies, our crumbs, our mess.

As I write this there’s a two-year-old in front of me who keeps lying down in the middle of the aisle, and there’s a mom to the left of me who paces the airplane with a fussy infant in a carrier. (She just took a wide step over the two-year-old.) She won’t have to hand-wash her diapers in the airplane sink, but I did turn my head a while ago after noting the scent of baby wipes, and saw that she had laid her child across the seats to change him. We are in our own kind of cattle car.

That feeling I’ve had since waking this morning, this dread of having to move my children through tight and crowded spaces, to usher them up and down escalators, to herd them to the right side of any corridor, I’m sure that feeling was familiar to my great-grandmother Bertha  who cared deeply about propriety, about keeping her family safe but also organized and tidy. Even in 2016, with every imaginable convenience, that still feels like an impossible goal.

Image Credit:  Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer – National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=708221

Close-up #2: Familiar

It is dark outside when my half-sister pulls up to the rental house, but my son Smoke runs out to greet her. “I’ll carry your bag,” he says. His offer surprises me-I’ve never known him to play the gentleman. Once she’s inside, he tells her: “I can help you unpack.” “Why thank you,” she says. She is as surprised by I am at his chivalry. Her voice is the same as it’s always been—soft and almost laughing.

Smoke waits for her as she drinks a glass of water and uses the bathroom. While he waits, he lines her three bags against the wall from small to large. When she enters he is all eagerness, unzipping zippers, lining bottles in rows, putting shirts in one drawer, skirts in another. In the eight years he’s been alive, he has met my sister five or six times, but he is utterly, immediately at ease with her.

A memory: It is a hot summer night and I am sitting in my sister’s lap. I am four; she is nineteen. My parents have taken us to see a play at a community theater in rural Maine. Outside, the air has cooled. At intermission, we watched bats catch bugs by the outdoor lamps. But now we are back inside the theater where the air is still and muggy. We are waiting for the play to start again. The heat brings out all the body smells. My sister smells like baby powder and shampoo. Her hair spills over her shoulders. I pick up a handful and put it under my nose to pretend I have a mustache. It is an excuse to be as close to her as possible.

I wonder how it is that Smoke has recognized in my sister what has always been so comforting to me. He seems to intuit that all of her belongings are carefully selected treasures. He wants to be near her, in her space, sitting next to the woman who feels in some essential way just like his mother but also—and this is important—in some essential way mysterious and different.

image from: http://www.liberty.co.uk/fcp/categorylist/dept/paisley-fabric

A Scene of Changery

Before there was a change of scenery, there was the dream of a change of scenery. In September, as our summer ended, Kellie and I talked about Hawaii. We talked about jumping into warm ocean waters and hiking into Turtle Bay. I continued the dream by searching the internet one night while the rest of my family slept. If I could find us a space away from the resort scene and priced to our budget, then maybe we would go. It only took me a few clicks to find a little white house for rent on an 8,000 acre ranch. The photos showed green hills and rainbows, ocean views and horses and sheep. I showed the listing to Kellie and we booked it. Later, I showed it to Smoke to convince him that Hawaii was a place he wanted to go. For the months that followed, I sometimes clicked through the slideshow to remind myself of the place I’d eventually be. Just the thought of the hills and the warm air helped me breathe more deeply.

Before there was a change of scenery there were weeks of planning and packing. There were fluctuating airfares and impossible travel times. There was an impulse to cancel the trip if it meant a midnight layover in Anchorage or a 10 pm departure. There were the logistics of parking cars and renting cars and transporting car seats and packing toiletries and medicines and swimsuits and all the while feeling that, upon arrival, I would discover some essential item I’d forgotten.

The change of scenery arrives the moment I step off the plane and descend to the tarmac and my jeans are already sticking to my thighs. There are palm trees in planters just past the gate and Smoke has already put on his sunglasses. I have to keep Stump from climbing on the baggage carousel. We make a pile of bags on a patch of grass and wait for Kellie to pick up the rental car. My kids strip off their long sleeve shirts and climb along the walls, bare-chested. A pair of ladies with stiff hair make phone calls and give me the side-eye.

Seen from the beach: turquoise waves that climb and crest, and then stir up brown sand as they fall; off in the distance, whale spouts and whale body parts—the flash of a tail or the curve of a back; closer to shore, a scattered row of humans waits in that magic spot where the waves swell; some of them hold boogie boards; some of them dive into waves and come out the other side; some of them glide with just their bodies. On the shore my kids dig in the sand and wait for the ocean to fill the hole they’ve made. They throw sand bombs and bury each others’ legs. Sometimes they run off and for a long minute their bodies blend in with all of the other bodies and action. I run along the beach craning my neck, trying to see between the tanners and the Frisbee-throwers until finally I see the swim trunks I recognize.

Hawaii5

Seen from inland: vistas, storm clouds, araucaria columnaris. A wild pig with three piglets, all of them fighting to nurse. Wild billy goats and their families hiding in the scrub, bleating (we hear them before we see them). Friendly horses at sunset. A Hawaiian short-eared owl, soaring in daylight. At twilight another one swoops in front of our headlights and then lands at the edge of the road. It stands there, still and silent, and stares us down.

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The packing never ends. In the mornings we move food from the refrigerator to the cooler. In the evenings we move food from the cooler to the refrigerator. We pack towels and sunscreen and changes of clothes. We pack Benedryl and epi-pens in case of bee emergencies. I am constantly checking my purse to make sure my wallet is still there. I am constantly checking on my children’s skin for signs of sunburn. I know that I am supposed to reapply sunscreen every 90 minutes, but they are constantly wet and covered in sand.

Smoke, my older son, joins the line of boogie boarders on day 3. This keeps him busy and smiling for the better part of an hour, until a large wave sneaks up and topples him. The rocks in the sand scratch his back in several spots. He bleeds a little. Kellie helps him find his footing, wraps him in a towel, and sets him down in a beach chair, but he won’t stop screaming. “I hate this beach,” he tells me. I tell him we’re not going to leave just yet. He spends the next forty minutes pouting and writing in the sand with his toes in all caps: I HATE THIS BEACH. I try to laugh, but the truth is I’m uncomfortable. I also don’t want to be the parent whose kid complains about his Hawaii vacation. I don’t want to be the parent who berates her kid for not loving every minute of his Hawaii vacation. I keep quiet and let Smoke do his thing. Each time he tries to write his sentence, a wave comes and washes it away before he can finish, which is actually pretty funny. Eventually, he recovers. We leave the boogie board on the shore and jump in the waves together.

On the same beach Stump climbs the koa trees that grow at odd angles over the beach. It a good task for him—it keeps him happy but it requires supervision. Kellie and I stop packing our personal reading materials in our beach bags–there’s no chance of sitting for longer than a moment. Every day I repeat the following phrase in my mind: The Family Vacation. I say it to remind myself that this isn’t a personal holiday, but instead an exercise in intensive parenting, in togetherness. It’s not about rest or comfort or indulgence, so much as it is about building something, about offering my children a new landscape for their memories to hold, a landscape that we can share in future years. I had a chiropractor once who would tell me to “go to Hawaii” before she adjusted the vertebrae in my neck. It was her way of asking me to relax so that she could do her work, but every time she said it I pictured a pier just south of Hawi where the yellow tangs swim. Hawaii to me was not an abstraction, but a place in my brain that I could access. I want my kids to have those places too.

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At night, in the dark, I cannot find my way through our rental home. I walk with both hands out in front of me, reaching, feeling, waiting for my eyes to adjust. They don’t. I think I can make out faint shapes—a door, a bed—but I am mistaken. I run into a wall where I thought I’d find a door or a door where I thought I’d find a wall. The truth is simple: my body hasn’t learned this place.

When Stump is especially tired, he cries for the home he knows. As we drive on the back roads after sunset, he says, “I don’t want to go to our Hawaii home. I want to go to our real home.” I look out over the ocean at the scattered lights along the coastline and I look for words to explain how very far away our real home is, and what two more days means, how to help him understand that our real home is unreachable to us at the moment, but that we haven’t left it behind forever.

I never find words for this, and it doesn’t matter. Kellie parks our rental car at the end of the driveway and I carry Stump through darkness and into the house. His brother has beat us inside and already turned on the lights and we can find everything we need. We read one of the books I packed from our hometown library and he is asleep before I reach the last page.

The West is on Fire

Our Cabin in Winter

Our Cabin in Winter

This morning, moments after I woke up, Kellie greeted me by saying, “It’s all over.”

“Huh?” I said, rubbing my eyes and starting the kettle.

“Our cabin,” she said, and explained that Aeneas Valley was evacuated overnight. Our cabin currently sits between two rapidly growing fires.

Just last weekend we had traveled there with a weed whacker in the back of the truck because the fire season was well under way, because it was already a bad one, because we were overdue for our annual fire abatement—and also, because we love it there.

interiorWe left on a Friday morning, the same morning that lightning had started dozens of small fires. Some of the fires had grown into big ones. As we drove through Chelan, the air grew increasingly thick with smoke. The parking lot of the elementary school was filled with fire trucks and mobilizing crews. Spectators lined up on one side of the bridge, shielding their eyes with their hands. As we crossed the bridge, I saw what they saw: a bright red fire descending down a not-so-distant hill.

For a mile we drove through smoke as thick as fog. When we finally turned North and traveled along the Columbia River, the air became suddenly clear enough that we could see again, and I felt just as suddenly that we had emerged from a place we shouldn’t have been. My sons pointed out the window, watching as a helicopter descended and filled its red bucket in the river. The bucket looked so small—like an overfilled water balloon—that I wondered how it was even worth the effort.

“That bucket carries 350 gallons,” Kellie told us. She speaks from experience. For nine years she fought fires on a helitack crew. Any time we hit the road during fire season, I can see something like nostalgia rise within her, a former way of being, woman vs. fire.

We traveled for another eighty miles, but the smoke never fully cleared. When we arrived at our cabin the air was visibly hazy. Kellie got out of her truck and surveyed the horizon. “That’s not good,” she said. She pointed to a puffy white cloud. It was mostly blocked by trees but steadily growing. Our kids ran wild around the cabin, but I stood there watching as Kellie narrated the cloud to me. There, where the cloud looked brown, living things were burning up. There, where white smoke fed the cloud, that fire was burning hot. I stood there transfixed. Without Kellie’s help I might not have even noticed that cloud, but now the more I looked the more I understood it as a living growing thing.

“Should we even stay?” I asked her. It was six o’clock already, and the sun would soon sink on the other side of the hills.

“It will cool down tonight,” Kellie said. “We’ll watch it in the morning.”

I spent the night awake, imagining the fire creeping towards us, the phrase “fast as wildfire” in my head, but when morning came our land was magically clear and still. Stump, our two-year-old son, played on the porch while I drank my morning tea at the picnic table. My heart filled. Usually being in wilderness feels good, but there’s angst at the edges. It’s a little too hot or a little too cold, or you’re swatting away at black flies, or your kids are fighting, or one of your dogs keeps putting his nose in your crotch. But this morning the sky was blue and the air was just cool enough. The smoke had settled. The fire clouds from yesterday had disappeared.

RocksKellie spent the day whacking down dry grass and raking it into piles. Together we moved the piles to a tarp and dragged them away from the cabin. Every year we had done this. The idea is to create a safe un-flammable circle around the cabin, but to be honest it feels more like dropping a penny in a well.

That evening Kellie said to me, “If there’s anything you want to save, now’s the time to grab it.” It took me a minute to realize what she meant. She meant that even though the air looked clear right now, even though I had relaxed my guard, I should prepare to say goodbye. I should save any object I wanted to keep. Kellie pointed to a painting of a mountain goat we’d found at a thrift store, and an antique wooden goblet that featured an elk. These were her choices. I agreed with them.

Only two weeks ago, I wrote about object attachment and how, if you asked me what three things I would save from a fire I wouldn’t know what to choose. As it turns out, that was accurate. As I looked around the cabin, the things that I wanted to save were the walls, the floor, the woodstove, the porch. The actual cabin. There wasn’t any individual thing I wanted, just all of things, together.

Earlier in the day it had occurred to me: this cabin was the one thing that Kellie and I have bought and made together. Kellie and I had been a couple for three years when we decided to buy raw land. We spent months driving around the state every weekend looking at parcels. We bought land where we did because it was cheap and wild and beautiful, even though it meant driving three hundred miles on the highway and another six miles up a rutted dirt road. We paid a local jack-of-all-trades to build a cabin: four walls and a loft and some windows. We’d do all the finish work ourselves.

For at least three years we spent seasons full of weekends making that drive to put in floors, build an outhouse, install a deck. I’m not handy, but I can follow directions and Kellie can give them, and so when I look at the floors I remember installing the boards with a pry bar and a nail gun, and when I look at the ceilings I remember trying to hold the sheets of plywood steady, one at a time, while Kellie nailed them to the beams.

We were probably halfway through this years-long project when Kellie and I got married in front of family and friends, but when I look back on things it feels like that cabin is the thing that married us. Because driving six hundred miles together every weekend, and drinking beers on the front porch as the sun sunk below the hills, and arguing about whether or not that board is hung at an angle, and trading off two-minute solar showers, those are the things that bound us.

fireOn Sunday afternoon, the day before we had planned to leave, we drove eight miles to the general store for ice cream. As we pulled into the dirt parking lot there were people watching the most recent blaze. The fire was climbing up one side of the hill, and it was clear that soon it would descend on the other side. The store owner said he would stay open all night. Further in the distance was another fire cloud. These two fires were expected to combine and grow. A couple in a Subaru pulled in next to us as we watched the fire and ate our ice cream.

“Is anyone fighting that?” a tall man in his thirties asked Kellie.

“There’s no one left to fight it,” Kellie said. “The whole west is on fire.” We watched as a single airplane zigzagged in the distance, but so far there was no parade of fire trucks, no clear and obvious rally like what we’d seen in Chelan.

sunThat night I took a bath outside as the clouds changed color and I felt as lucky as I ever have to be nestled, naked, in the mountains. Though I knew that fires blazed less than ten miles away, the air was clear and it was easy to believe that all was well, that it always had been and it always would be.

This morning, after Kellie shared the news about the evacuation and the growing fire, as I slowly woke up and tried to believe what I knew was real, I thought about our cabin floors again, and our walls. From the beginning we knew that we risked losing anything we built on that mountain, that wild fires blazed every year and missing them was just a matter of luck. Still, we didn’t build a cabin we could bear to lose. We built it as if we planned to pass it on to our sons, to keep it in our family forever. We loved every beam and every plank. We cut our pieces carefully and laid them out true. And I realize that is exactly how I want to live.

On Coming Home

I just returned from leaving my children for what felt like a year.

Actually, it was only a week. I was gone for seven nights exactly, but while I was away time opened wide like a yawning mouth.

I went to Big Sur for a writing retreat, and the goal was to settle into my own rhythms, to have time to be quiet, but for the first three nights I was stiff with worry. I worried that someone needed me, that my children were crying, were in pain, that they might stop breathing at any moment, or fall down a flight of stairs. I worried that my phone would ring in the middle of the night, that someone would call with unbearable news.

On the fourth night, upon learning that both of my boys were happily eating and playing and sleeping, I finally let go. In my temporary bed, I settled into a deep and solitary sleep, slept for many hours, and woke when my body told me to wake. I walked a quarter mile to the lodge, filled my coffee cup, sat by the window and believed that all was well.

blue In letting go, I became truly separate from my children. That I had another life away from the ocean kept surprising me. I had a life of wandering, of writing, of staring out at the ocean, watching the pelicans fly in a row towards the water, and then away from it. I had time to start a thought and finish it.

This feeling of separateness was exactly the purpose of my trip, and yet it disturbed me. When I called home I asked Kellie: Does Smoke miss me? Does Stump even remember me? Do they ask about me?

“You haven’t been gone that long,” Kellie reminded me.

She passed the phone to Smoke, whose voice surprised me. Disconnected from his body, his voice sounded small, like his might have been three years old. I couldn’t make out his freckles, couldn’t see his long and narrow waist. “I can’t hear you very well because Stump is yelling, but I love you,” he reassured me, and then hung up.

On the eighth day I drove and flew towards home and arrived just after bedtime. All the lights in the house were off, and I unlatched our old screen door. Past the roaring fan, I found Kellie asleep next to Stump in the lower bunk, both of them on top of the covers. Stump wore just a diaper, and a pair of Spider-Man underwear over the diaper. I climbed up the bunk bed ladder just to glimpse Smoke, asleep in the dark wearing only his pants.

In the morning Smoke woke too early and I heard Kellie whisper to him, ushering him into our bedroom where I lay half awake. His hair was stiff from swimming and sweat. It stuck up in all directions. I called his name. “Mommy!” he said, and it was all he said. He climbed into bed and into my arms. I listened as his breathing slowed, my own mind drifting back to the ocean, how thick and still it looked on my last day, how three dolphin fins cut through the water, how two whales that morning slipped up for a moment and then back under. I drifted under too, my arms around my son.

Some time passed, and I surfaced again at the sound of Stump’s feet walking the distance from his bed to mine, knowing where to find me, knowing somehow I was home. He climbed in too, and settled on the other side of me, his head just above my armpit, and though he was wide awake he rested a moment before launching into chatter, and in that moment, resting, half-awake, I thought about how being a mother sometimes just means being a body, or even a place, like a wolf in her den, holding space for her cubs to rest against her heat, her smell, to feel her breath and know that they are home.

Embraced by the Curve of the Earth

Apparently yesterday was one of those days where I had to lash out at two of the people I love the most.

Stump had woken me at 4:50 am for the fifth morning in the row. It’s my punishment for night weaning him. He sleeps beautifully now until 4 a.m., but he just can’t forgive me yet for the last three hours. He wakes a four and coos in my ear “Nursey time? Nursey time?”

“No nursey time,” I whisper, and he cries for a while, and dozes for a while, and then wakes himself up so that he can ask again. “Nursey-time?”

Sometime around 5, I give up and we sit and eat our breakfast with the kitchen light on, the world pitch black outside our windows. At 5 Stump and I are both awake, silent, too tense to return to sleep, but too weary to function as our best selves.

At 7, Smoke rose, curled up on the couch, complained that he was cold and didn’t know what he wanted for breakfast. After minutes of negotiation he settled on an English muffin, and I fried an egg for myself.

While I stood over the pan staring off into space, Stump reached to the counter and tugged on the edge of the open egg carton. It fell to the floor. Every egg tumbled out and broke on the floor.

An hour later, once I finally had lunches packed, bags packed, and all of the bodies dressed, Smoke decided he was “too weared out” to go to school. “You’re going,” I told him. “You can stay home all weekend but today is a school day.” I told him to put on his shoes and meet me at the car.

Usually that works. Usually, the sight of me loading Stump into his car seat is enough to convince Smoke that our departure is imminent. But this time, when I came inside, he was lying on the floor feigning fatigue. And I lost it. “Oh My God,” I said. “I Can’t Believe You.” My voice held all of the crankiness of five days of lost sleep, and all of the rage of having lost control of my life, along with eleven freshly-laid winter eggs. By the time Smoke made it to the car, he was in tears.

Later in the day, it was Kellie’s turn. We had wriggled out of our Friday afternoon obligations to celebrate my birthday, one day late. As we drove to the Olympus Women’s Spa in Tacoma, I fought against my angst. I wanted to want to sit in a hot tub, and I had been looking forward to this outing for weeks, but what I really needed was sleep. And I had work to do. Piles of it. When would it get done? “Do you want to turn around?” she asked. “Don’t even ask me that!” I snapped. If my goal was to make our drive to Tacoma as unpleasant as possible, then I did an admirable job.

Later, after Kellie and I had paid our thirty-dollar entry fee, once I found myself lying on a heated salt floor in a cotton robe and a pink cotton shower cap, once the tension inside me started to uncoil a bit, I remembered that it was my birthday and stifled a laugh. Of course I was threaded with angst, itchy like a healing wound stitched too tight. That’s what birthdays always are for me. An extra celebration once the holidays have ended, one that no one is quite up for. A measuring stick for where my life is abundant, where it is scarce. In the past few years, I’ve tried to cope with birthday angst by celebrating sideways, by spreading out treats over the course of days, rather than focusing on a single day. And I like my birthday, too. I like cupcakes and flowers and Facebook greetings, it’s just that angst is an undeniable part of the thing.

Thorns“Embraced by the Curve of the Earth,” was the title of a blog post I was meaning to write all week and never got to because every evening, once the kids had gone to bed, all I could do was blankly stare at Facebook and tell myself to either write or go to sleep. Instead, I just kept scrolling. The post wasn’t going to be about my birthday. It was going to be about my trip to Whidbey Island with my sister, and I was going to describe, among other things, these two moments.

1. Waking up at eight-thirty in the morning, when the sky was already bright and grey. Noting the feeling of having slept for eight continuous hours. Making tea while my sister slept in the next room and no one pulled on my shirt saying “nursey time”, and no one asked me to carry him from the couch to the kitchen table because his legs were “weared out”. As I settled with my tea, a bald eagle flew right by my window. And I couldn’t remember the last time silence had been so rich or so magic.

2. At the end of that same day, my sister and I went for a two-hour walk along the side of the island. The clouds kept changing, making windows of light and dark. At one point, nearly halfway through, we reached a special spot where it seemed that the earth was a cradle and we were held there in its center. By the time we returned to the car, it was night.

Sometimes I remind myself that time isn’t linear, though I may experience it that way, and so even though I’ve reached the end of a tight and angst-y week, even though my nerves may feel stretched and brittle like an old rubber band, I am still living that moment where the eagle flies across my periphery, and I am still standing in that spot where the earth looks extra round. Because if anything is true, it’s this: every moment, every day, I am embraced by the curve of the earth. Curve1

 

Leaving Colorado Part 5: Homecoming

Leaving Walla Walla  Photo from wikimedia.org

Leaving Walla Walla
Photo from wikimedia.org

The last leg of our journey should have been easy. After two long days of solo driving, the trip from Walla Walla to Olympia—five hours on a good day—was a route I’d traveled at least a dozen times before. The distance was finite, reasonable—there would be no pushing on another hundred miles while the baby screamed. I wasn’t searching for the next hotel, I was aiming straight for home. It was waiting for us. It would be there.

And so we spent a lazy morning with our Walla Walla friends: eating breakfast, lingering over coffee, playing on the playground. I told myself that the late start would serve us all, that my children would be compliant passengers after their car-free morning. Maybe—I dared to think it—we would make it all the way there without stopping.

I loaded the kids in their seats and the dogs in their spots for our final departure at one, just as the sun was reaching its highest point in the sky. It was September, and the morning had been cool enough, and so I hadn’t thought about my broken air conditioning, or how it feels to drive through shade-less Walla Walla. And before we’d even past the city limits, just as the baby had fallen asleep, I noted orange cones down the middle of the road, and an endless backup of cars. Our black Honda, crawling along on the asphalt, became an oven. Thirty minutes later, when the traffic finally cleared, we had traveled less than five miles.

The four-year-old whined that he was “sweaty”.

The baby, who should have slept a full three hours, woke up and added his voice to the chorus of cranky.

The dogs panted, and shifted, and acted generally good-natured because that is what dogs are good for.

I drove for an hour and then stopped for Slurpees. Sugar cheered both of my children. I assumed that the worst was behind us.

Loose-Gravel-Trs-067

We were about halfway there when I started winding up the mountain road, and passed a sign that said Caution: Loose Gravel. I’d seen these signs before on bigger highways and wondered why they even bothered with the warning. The roads were always fine, it seemed to me, just an extra chip of gravel here and there. My bigger problem was the sun, which was no longer hot, but was blindingly bright when it cut through the shade of the mountain. I wore sunglasses and pulled down the visor, but the brightness still shocked me at every turn.

And then I hit the gravel. The brightness filled with thin white dust and now I really could not see. I slowed the car to twenty miles an hour. I could see about five feet in front of me, but not beyond. It was like driving in a blizzard. A sunny September blizzard. My four-year-old complained that he was bored, and that he wanted a snack. “I can’t see right now!” I told him, my voice tight with fear. “No, I said I want a snack!” he protested. I kept telling myself to just keep driving, to stay slow, to keep looking those five feet ahead. I kept telling myself we were safe even though it seemed we were in danger. The baby cried weakly and then quit, like he didn’t want to commit.

The dust blizzard continued for longer than I ever would have imagined. Occasionally, I’d drive through some shade and see just a little bit better and think: this isn’t so bad, and then the sun would blast out my vision once more. I kept thinking: how much of this road did they pave, as I rounded another mountain turn. Two miles? Five miles? Twenty? In the end, it felt like twenty though it can’t have been much more than five.

Dinner break at the top of the mountain.

Dinner break at the top of the mountain.

It was nearly ten at night when we finally arrived in Olympia. Both of my kids were awake. After the dust blizzard and a stop for dinner, the baby had cried for nearly an hour, slept for twenty minutes, and then woke up to resume his screaming. Now, as the car pulled to a stop, he took a staggered breath and quieted.

As I parked the car, my phone rang. It was an old friend. “You home yet?” she asked. “You need anything?”

“I could use a beer,” I told her.

Within ten minutes she delivered. She brought another friend and together they passed around the baby and chatted up the four-year-old as I wandered from room to room with my open beer. In a daze, I laid out suitcases, fed dogs, put sheets on the bed, engaged in the chores of home. Because that’s where I was.

There was something empty about it. The place seemed to echo. We’d abandoned it all summer after all. But still, it was comforting.

Home is the place with the scratches in the floors, the smell you recognize, where even an unmade bed, an empty refrigerator bring ease. Home is the place where your friends come to deliver you a beer just because you need one.

In which I learn that my lactation superpowers have limits

I never wanted to be that parent on an airplane, the one with the baby who screams and won’t stop, and up until yesterday I hadn’t been. I thought I had it figured out, that my choice to practice extended breastfeeding meant that I always had the proper tool to quiet my little ones. But if there’s a cardinal rule of parenting it’s this: the moment you get cocky about anything is the moment you dig your own grave.

Yesterday we flew from Seattle to Boston—a five-hour flight—and Stump, who is currently eighteen months, screamed for an hour straight. I’m worried that an hour sounds unimpressive, so allow me to add a little detail.

It began only a few minutes after we boarded, probably around the time that Stump figured out the airplane was going to be his temporary prison, that he would be loosely confined to my lap for an indefinite period. It was nap time, and he’d already been confined to the car seat and later the stroller since he’d awoken at six. And so, he began screaming and thrashing with all of his bobcat strength.

IMG_1276

“Ten minutes,” I told myself, trying to restrain him so that he wouldn’t kick or head butt the large elderly man who shared our row—did I mention I was traveling sans partner? I figured once the plane started moving, Stump would settle. I’d nurse him (awkwardly, hiding from the old-man-neighbor), and he’d easily fall asleep. Whatever passengers he was annoying would calm down, wipe their foreheads and think: that baby’s not so bad.

The plane started moving. I tried to nurse him. He complied for a moment, then bolted away, arching back and screaming. I rushed to cover up my nipple. We repeated this at least four times until I gave up on the power of lactation to calm him. In my world, this is the sign of a serious problem. I held him and rocked him and begged him and shushed him and tried not to break down and cry. “You have to go to sleep,” I hiss-whispered.

“He’ll give it up eventually,” the old man reassured me. I wondered: what if he didn’t? What if he cried for the entire five hours and eight minutes? I told myself that even if this happened, the flight would end eventually, but I knew that every hour would feel like a decade. Those five hours would add up to longer than I’ve even lived.

The old man got up to use the restroom, and on his way back I overheard a woman offer to trade seats with him so that he could relax. He told her “Oh no; it’s fine.”

Stump was still screaming when I felt him fart through his diaper. It was an especially stinky fart for a baby, and it wafted right up into my face. It was then that I began to suspect that I understood the problem. Minutes later, I checked his diaper, and saw a tiny brown turd. He leaned into me crying. His crying was different than his screaming—it contained a hint of relief. He leaned into me, pooing, just letting it all go.

You see, Stump is a guy who poops on the move, not in his car seat, not in his stroller, and definitely not while his mom is force-nursing him. I wanted to get on the PA system and announce: “Fellow Passengers. He Just Had to Poop. Everything is Going to be Fine.”

Instead I dug through my bag for a diaper and wipes. Red-faced and sweaty, I carried my stinky baby to the bathroom and changed him on top of the toilet while he continued to scream. He screamed as I washed my hands and he screamed all the way back to his seat. But when I offered my breast he took it and instantly melted into a puddle of sleeping baby. My fellow passengers wiped their brows and collectively thought, That baby has issues.

Is my Desperation Showing?

Front Seat Selfie

Front Seat Selfie

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I’m in the seating area of the natural foods store in Sand Point Idaho, but I’m not sitting down. Stump, my one-year-old, has just thrown a slice of strawberry and three melon cubes on the floor and now he’s trying to launch himself out of his high chair. He’s needed a nap since two hours ago. I let him down and he starts running towards the main shopping area. He’s wearing a diaper, a t-shirt, and shoes with no socks. When I pick him up, he arches his back with super baby strength and screams No!

 Smoke, my five-year-old, is pecking at his string cheese and the six-dollar fresh fruit box I bought him. He looks off into space, tuning out the world, a skill he’s been cultivating since Stump was born.

Across from our table, a blond woman in her forties watches us as she tries to enjoy her lunch. “Let me know if I can help you,” she says.

Outside, it’s at least 90 degrees and my partner Kellie is forty-five miles away in Nowhere, Idaho (okay, it’s actually called Oldtown), waiting for the mechanic to fix her goof from earlier this morning.

Here’s how it went down:

1. At precisely 10 am, as planned, we left our friends’ house at the lake. We had four hours of driving ahead of us and we wanted to maximize Stump’s naptime. Our two friends and their two nephews would follow behind us. We were so organized. We had done all of our packing the night before, and spent the morning enjoying the lake. All we had to do was top of the gas tank in Kellie’s monster diesel truck.

2. While Kellie topped off the tank, I went inside to buy an iced tea. When I returned to the truck, she was in the middle of calling her dad. As it rang, she looked at me. “I fucked up,” she said. After leaving her father a voice mail, Kellie explained that the fuel hoses had been tangled, and she had accidentally topped her diesel tank off with regular fuel. She had already added twelve gallons when she looked down and noticed the pump handle was black, not green. “I am such a fuck-up,” she concluded.

3. Upon hearing the news, my first instinct was to minimize the problem. Three-quarters of our fuel was still diesel, right? Couldn’t we keep going and maybe the engine would run a little rough? Nope. A quick look at our smart phones and return call from her dad yielded consistent advice that we would risk ruining the engine that way. Well, then couldn’t we drive it a few blocks to the nearest mechanic and have them drain the tank and we’d be good to go in about an hour? Nope. Driving it even a few blocks would be risky, and no one could commit to finishing the job that day. If we could get it back tomorrow, we’d be lucky.

4. As we waited for the tow truck to arrive, we had to make some decisions quickly. Would we continue our trip to Montana or stay by the lake one more night? What would we do with all of our stuff—our cooler, our bags, our car seats? Would we rent a car, or pray that against all odds Kellie’s truck would be ready by evening?

By this time, our friends and their nephews had joined us. We needed their help, but we didn’t want to spoil their day, to trap them in our limbo. The nearest rental agency was forty-five miles away. There was also a problem of space: They had one free spot in their car. There was space for two riders in the tow truck. There were four of us. After some frantic discussion we made a plan. Kellie and Harlan would ride in the tow truck and wait at the mechanic’s, while Stump and I would overcrowd their sedan. Once we rented a car in Sand Point, our friends could reclaim their seats and continue on to Montana.

5. The rental car turned out to be unnecessary. By the time I had hauled a screaming Stump the forty-five miles back to Oldtown, Kellie’s fuel line was being drained, and the mechanic could now promise that her truck would be ready by the end of the day. I tried not to feel stupid and I tried not to worry that I’d have to pay the full $100 for the two-day rental I’d requested.

Instead, I tried to Make The Most Of It. For the third time that day, I’d drive the forty-five miles between Sand Point and Oldtown, this time with two kids in the back. While Kellie waited in the blazing sun, I could at least make use of my rental investment by getting the kids out of the heat and feeding them something besides the snacks that we’d been keeping in the truck for five days. Destination: Winter Ridge Natural Foods. By now, I’ve learned to depend on natural foods stores (in Idaho, no less) as a kind of respite for weary moms.

And now, here I am, chasing my toddler back and forth between the two rows of tables. I need coffee, and there’s an espresso bar just twenty feet from the seating area. I let Stump climb on a chair so that I can lean in and talk to Smoke. I touch his shoulder to get his attention. “I’m going to go buy a coffee drink right over there,” I say, pointing. But he doesn’t track my finger. He’s pretending to listen, but he’s still in outer space. Stump is climbing off the chair, but if I go now, I know what will happen. Smoke will return to earth in the moment I leave the area and wonder where I am. He’ll look around and begin to cry. He’ll holler “Mommy Where Are You?” tears streaming down his face. A shopper will call CPS. Hoping to avoid all this, I wrangle Stump and begin to repeat myself, but the lady eating lunch intervenes. “I’ll watch him,” she offers.

I’m grateful for her offer, but I’m also not sure if she’s acting out of genuine sympathy for me, or if she thinks I’m incompetent. And as I’m walking to the espresso bar, diapered baby on my hip, it hits me:

No one knows the reason for this spectacle, my unruly half-dressed baby, my unkempt hair, my checked-out son. No one knows about the days of traveling, the truck in the shop, the split second decisions, the chaos of it all. Instead, for all they know, this is just how I roll. For all they know, on grocery day I slap a diaper on the baby, let him run amok, and draw everyone in range into our family drama.

A half hour later, hot and weary but caffeinated, I’ll return the car and pay $50, just one of the day’s expenses. Underneath the blazing son, we’ll take our places and hit the road, the wind in our hair, finally.

Leaving Colorado Part 4: “All Your Friends are Here”

Image Courtesy of Berkly Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

On the way to Colorado, we had been a caravan, a family of travelers. My partner Kellie drove a Budget truck stuffed with barn wood and boxes. The truck pulled our little along Honda behind it on a rickety car trailer. The kids and I followed behind in Kellie’s diesel pickup. Because I’m too timid to drive either of these rigs, we’d drafted two friends, Dee and Heidi, to help us with the driving.

By ten in the morning, as we crossed the line from Oregon to Idaho, the day had already warmed to 104 degrees, and the road was even hotter. The air conditioning in the truck was broken. Dee drove the pickup with the windows down, the hot air whipping our hair in all directions. It was too loud to talk, so we kept our eyes on the road ahead, trying to make it till evening, praying the kids would keep their cool. But eight miles into Idaho, Dee and I watched as one of the car trailer’s tires exploded and fell to pieces on the highway.

Our caravan pulled to the breakdown lane. As we stood on sand and asphalt, vehicles whizzing by at momentous speeds, we instantly began to melt. The baby screamed. I hunkered down with the cell phone, navigating the maze of numbers to connect with roadside assistance. Forty minutes, they told us. No guarantees.

Dee decided to wait with Kellie in the heat while Heidi took over the pickup, ready to drive me and the kids somewhere cooler. “I know where the Whole Foods in Boise is,” she offered.

Boise Whole Foods would become the only thing I’d see of Idaho both coming and going. It was where I was headed now, day two of my journey with two boys and two dogs in a tiny, stinky Honda.

This time, there was no emergency. Or, to put it another way, we’d become accustomed to a constant state of emergency, the car too hot, the endless road, the baby always on the verge of meltdown.

But Boise Whole Foods was everything I needed. It was vast and air-conditioned. They had vegetables there. By God, I wanted a fancy salad and I was willing to pay thirteen dollars for it.

But more importantly, Boise Whole Foods featured something so practical it was nearly miraculous: a nursing lounge for mothers. It had a door that locked, a sink, a changing table, an outlet where I could plug in my phone. It featured a comfortable chair where I could nurse the baby, along with toys and books to distract my older son while I sat and nursed. To top it all off, its walls featured a series of prints by Berkley Illustration titled “All Your Friends Are Here.”

Image Courtesy of Berkly Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Strangely, the appeal of the mothers’ lounge was that it was populated by these illustrations, and No One Else. I locked the door. I nursed. I charged my phone. I splashed water on my face. No one knocked. No one sized me up and shouted “Got your hands full there”—the line that was inevitably uttered at every rest stop.

I nursed the baby with my feet up, as my older son and I discussed which of the prints we each loved the most, and which one I should order at Christmas for Mommy Kellie, who was by now 700 miles away. We might have spent twenty minutes in the mothers’ lounge, but it was restorative in the same way that catnaps are restorative. We returned to the car, disoriented, groggy, but refreshed.

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

*Thanks to Berkley Illustration for permission to use these images.