Kids

My village people

May 25, 2017

Spike was mumbling the words to “You’re Welcome,” which we were listening to for the second time that morning, staring at the car’s shadow on the road below and running her tiny pointer finger over her thin top lip. She always stops trying when Maui raps. I turned down the radio for my usual morning hype sesh.

“Oh man, babe … How ya feelin’ about the field trip today? The zoo is the best. You’re going to have so much fun!”

She whipped her head in my direction and said, “Yeah, did you know that of all the kids in the class there are only two moms who aren’t going?” (I knew one of them was me.)

She wasn’t being deliberately hostile. She wasn’t. She was just using her little innocent mouth to lay out the facts for me on a shitty mom platter. This would be breakfast today.

“Gosh, hon. I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, you and Jack’s mom.” (Who is a friend of mine.)

“Oh.”

“Yeah, Ms. Kylene’s going to let us be her partner since you won’t be there.”

“Well, that’s special!”

“Yeah, it is.”

Her eyes went back to the shadow. There would be no more talk of this topic for now.

It was that she said it, don’t get me wrong. But more than that, it was the way it lingered … like a pregnancy fart in a sauna. The way the “only” just hung out there so harshly, so ruthlessly, and then it latched on mercilessly to the “mom” and the two words gripped and clawed at each other in the front of my brain.

A played out Chainsmokers song picked up where the Moana soundtrack left off. My heart was drowning in my brutal interpretation of the situation …

You are the only mom not going. The only one who sucks … In a class of 12 kids, there are 10 good moms, one other mom, and you … If good moms and bad moms played Red Rover, you’d be the only one they could send over … Other moms make animal faces on their kids’ sandwiches using grapes and basil leaves. And then there’s you … You let me down.

I couldn’t adjust my schedule and make it happen. It was one of many, many times my cape was at the cleaners and I just couldn’t pull it off. And I hate that. Don’t you hate that? I would be missing – a noticeable gaping hole – in the standard group shot in front of the ZOO sign. I wouldn’t be on the log ride or there to help little people poke the straw through their juice boxes.

And the more I thought about the juice boxes and the group shot and the stupid log ride, the more I really started to go there. You know where … That dark place where jealousy infects your character with toxic judgements and ridicule. I thought of all the mothers in their perfect boyfriend jeans and trendy sweaters pointing out the orangutan baby to my child. I thought about all the embarrassing stories she would tell, and how I wouldn’t be there to laugh awkwardly and explain them. And I thought about how there would be this depressing white space in her preschool scrapbook where her own mother’s face should be. And down and down and down I went.

We pulled in and I held her hand to cross the parking lot. I love holding her hand. Her sweet, phenomenal teacher took the torch from my weakened grip and started hyping Spikey up for the big day. I needed to tap out anyway, obviously.

“Are you excited?” she asked. Spike nodded, shyly. “I can’t wait to be your partner,” her teacher added.

I smiled, squeezed my little bug, wished her the very best of special days, and walked out, feeling heavy as hell.

Every mother who has ever written on or for any platform or publication has covered this topic to an exhausting degree. In fact, you probably aren’t even reading this because you didn’t make it this far in. Same shit, different laxative, right? But people talk about it so much because it’s such a chronic pain. We work so that we can afford to pay a babysitter so that we can go to work. It’s a gross, sad ferris wheel, where all the riders are screaming and crying their heads off on the inside, but they can’t get off. Because if you get off, they might not let you back on when it’s more convenient for you to ride.

That said, I love my job. I’m not even lying. I do. I love it. I’m one of the fortunate people who only cries and screams on the inside on occasion, and usually Mondays. I get to write about topics that typically interest me and often help people and interview amazing people and I’m hyper cognizant of the fact that I’m lucky to get paid to do that. But with that comes the restrictive straight jacket known as the 8-to-5. (Remember the good ole’ days when it was 9-to-5?) It breeds anxiety for mothers and sets the stage for disappointment at almost every turn. Most days I’ve failed before my feet hit the floor.

Now, I know it might look like it, but this is not an argument about whether SAHMs or MOPS or working moms (who have no acronym) have it worse. I’m not dumb enough to take on that debate because there is no winner. In fact, when we argue about such extraneous crap, we all lose. It doesn’t need to be said here, but I’ll put it down just so we’re all 1000% on the same page: Being a mom from any location, in any conditions or in conjunction with any occupational obligations is a bitch. A beautiful, messy bitch that we’re all thankful for every day. Not like every minute of every day, but every day.

So, it wasn’t a shiny moment for me that morning in the car (in my head). And I said to myself, “No, Courtney. No. You will stop drinking the Hate-orade and quit being a chump right this second.” And I did. But it wasn’t until later, after Spikey shared how special her day was and how special everyone made her feel, that the real deep stuff set in. That I was able to sift through the litter box and find the golden turds of wisdom in the situation.

My family is my tribe. But the mass of other people – this vibrant collage of compassionate souls and patient beings – is my village. And I couldn’t mother without the village. Sometimes it’s hard for me to ask for help. And sometimes I resent needing that help, but I do. And sometimes help just shows up, in my friends and my family, and sometimes in people I don’t know that well. And that’s kind of really beautiful actually.

The people in my village pick up where I hit my limitations, where I run out of time, and where I fall short. They hide in the houses and schools and stores I pass through like a wild tornado every day, jumping in when I have to step out. I couldn’t possibly name them all or acknowledge them all, but when I really stop and think about it, they are everywhere in force. My village is big, and it’s kind.

My village has Kay, who potty trained and taught the girls to go down stairs when they were 1 and instilled faith. It has Aimee, who teaches them to read and be modest, and Ms. Kylene who calls them “love bugs” and makes them feel special on the days they otherwise wouldn’t, and Mrs Hurley who shares her own stories of finger sucking so my daughter doesn’t feel like a freak, and Coach Kasey who made Spikey take that unforgettable shot. My neighbors in my village are these gentle souls who let my kids talk their ears off while they wash their cars and who bring over cookies and don’t say a word about the fact our smoke alarm is going off. My village is centered around courageous, selfless women – my mom, my mother-in-law, my sisters, my girlfriends – with a few fellas peppered in.

But it’s even bigger than that. There are strangers in my village who stop by but don’t stay. They pass out smiles and warm gestures that restore my hope when I fear for the state of humanity. They bend down and say sweet things to my girls in the store. They listen to my first grader read and they put the straw in my daughter’s juice box when her mommy has to work.

Listen, sometimes it gets hairy, this mothering thing. There are meetings that can’t be moved and rain dates that crap on good intentions and, to be honest, sometimes there are just days when the best thing you can do for your kids is be away from them. But don’t let all this bologna send you to that dark place. Don’t do it. Look to your village, instead. Leverage your village. Love your village. Express gratitude for your village.

Your tribe will be the better for it.

Laughs

Taking the good stuff when you go

May 10, 2017

I stood in the sticky, stagnant air of a sweltering cinder block room, smelling the unfamiliar perspiration of strangers I hadn’t yet met and staring down at the yellow bedspread with purple flowers I’d purchased a week ago at Bed Bath & Beyond. Now, standing here, it felt so Lisa Frank, so ridiculous. I couldn’t have predicted how different it would look to me in this light, on this day – The day I fractured off from the safety of my nuclear family and stepped into the role of pseudo-adult. I thought if I looked at the childlike petals long enough, a semester – and this feeling of coming out of my skin – might pass.

My brother, who was moving me in, heaved an off-white square of carpet into the middle of the space. Sweating like a Texas farmer in a ghost pepper-eating contest at the summer fair, he turned to me. “Do you need anything else?” he asked, answering the question for me with his expression. His friends were waiting. There was no time for tears, or assembly or the emotions other freshmen got.

And anyway, I had no idea what I needed. How could I? I was living away from home for the first time in my life. I was 18. Terrified. Unhappy with my adolescent bedding purchase. And so consumed with trying to act like the whole situation was no big deal. My best friends are scattering like dandelion seeds? No big deal. My mom was too sad to move me in? No big deal. I had to figure out the rest of my life in four years, starting Monday? No big deal.

I surveyed my messy jumble of belongings. In a pile next to the lofted bunk bed, sat:
☻ 3 laundry bags stuffed with clothes (mostly homecoming T-shirts, A&F, Gap and Old Navy)
☻ 1 shower caddy packed with essentials and matching flip flops wrapped in cellophane and tied with a bright pink bow (a gift from a well-wisher)
☻ 1 laundry basket filled with framed pictures of my girlfriends and boxes of Easy Mac
☻ The aforementioned bedspread and sheets that, I can say now, and realized then, belonged in an 8-year-old girl’s bedroom with a matching canopy
☻ A messenger style bookbag brimming with folders and notebooks in a variety of colors
☻ So many pens
☻ A computer
☻ Cigarettes

Aside from that, I don’t remember what I believed qualified as necessary for a daily existence sans parents. My kind sister-in-law took pity on me and stayed long enough to help me unpack and plug in my computer before taking me over to my brother’s friends’ house off campus to play quarters and wash away the fear with a flood of cheap beer. (And maybe Smirnoff Ice? Which I’m sure I sheepishly requested and I’m sure they bitched about when I wasn’t within earshot.) Whatever the case, I remember being properly shit-faced walking back into my strange home. And it helped.

From the August evenings spent perspiring and repositioning a box fan in the window, through the winters with snow-crowded walkways and wet jean bottoms, to the sunny farewells on the lawn that spring, I spent just over 8 months over 2001-2002 on the 7th floor of that co-ed dormitory. I watched the aftermath of 9/11 in that building. I fell in love with my now-husband in that building. I met two of my bridesmaids in that building. I befriended independence in that building. Just a bunch of shit went down in that building.

So, when my ex-roommate sent me a news article a few weeks back announcing that the University would be tearing down the establishment, which was affectionately and accurately referred to as the “freshmen ghetto” even in our day, I felt a twinge of emotion over the whole thing. Text messages were exchanged, husbands were bribed, and it was decided: We would go back in time and place and bid farewell to the site that birthed our sisterhood on May 6.

Sometimes people get lucky with college roommates. And sometimes they get really, stupid-lucky. I was stupid-lucky. Actually, at the risk of sounding socially arrogant, I’ve been blessed with some dope-ass friends in almost every stage of my life. Except middle school. Middle school was kind of a bitch … and so were the girls. But my college friendships came on like a pair of boyfriend sweatpants from Victoria’s Secret, real easy.

Ashlie was diagonal across the hall. Her dad had built custom bunkbeds for her and her roommate and the entire floor indulged her pride in his display of expert carpentry. She had a cartoon character laugh, a heart as big as her t-shirt collection and the ability to drink any man under any table at any time. Ashlie was (and still is) the type of friend who would take you to the bar, even though she won’t be old enough to go in for 3 more months, and drop you off because it’s raining and you might get your slutty tank top soaked if she doesn’t. This is a hypothetical scenario, of course. I saw this young woman fall down and rip her pants more times and in more ways than I can count. I would live with Ashlie five other times in my life and sit next to her on my wedding day, though I couldn’t have predicted that then.

Sarah was down the hall a bit. Although I could always hear her like she was right next door. She had the moves of Elaine Benes and the laugh of Cameron Diaz with a megaphone attached to her lips. She was always down for a bad decision unless she had a 12-page paper to write and only 4 hours to write it in. Sarah’s roommate in the dorm used to buy raw steak and put it in their mini fridge. And also, Sarah was salt-sensitive. If we ate at the cafeteria, her ankles would balloon up like a set of inflated whoopee cushions. This girl would change my life with her sunshine and soul, though I couldn’t have predicted that then.

Anyway, all this to set the scene. This past weekend, salt-sensitive Sarah picked me up and we went back to Muncie –
the Seattle of Indiana – to see our big-hearted friend Ashlie and the dormitory that built us.

We started the day at our favorite Mexican joint. Margaritas all around (yes, we got carded) and lots of chips. Dear, sweet, Ashlie – who was known as “Smashlie” in her former life – recently became a mommy to two little bambinos and has taken her cocktail game down a few notches. This is, of course, a polite way of saying sister can’t handle her liquor anymore and had tiny eyes about a fourth of a marg in. God bless her. The waiter was cute, Sarah said. Then he smiled at us with his braces and we all quickly looked away. This would be the first of many times the universe would bitch slap us back into our 30s that day. We were more likely to drop this kid off at the party than tap the keg.

First stop after lunch was the house we lived in our senior year. I remember my 22-year-old self thinking the red siding was endearing. Charming. Like an old barn. The layout was a little less so. The front door opened right into Sarah’s room, which she grew to loathe. My room was attached to an enclosed storage area and had no windows. I called it “the cave”. It could be 3pm and I would just be snoozin’ away with no idea. When winter arrived that year, so did the mice. They would run across the floor and we’d all scream like idiots. In true college landlord fashion, the asshole dropped off a handful of traps and wished us the best. That house was farther from campus and didn’t have the mojo of our first house. It was, however, right across the street from both a gas station and a liquor store. I could go get a cold bottle of Wild Vines for $3.99 and a pack of Camels any time I wanted.

But the years had not been kind to the little red house. It was downright dilapidated. “What the hell happened here?” Sarah asked, as we drove down the side drive. Two pitbulls fell over each other barking in the windows. “Just keep going!” I yelled, laughing nervously at our impending doom, as Sarah countered in an equally raised tone, “Pitbulls are nice!” (Sarah has a pitbull.)

The savage dogs damn near killed my buzz. We went to the liquor store for previsions. We browsed the selection and chatted about the logistics of a cooler, ice, cups, what would be the easiest way to carry our cocktails discretely. We were planning our roadies like a 5-year-old’s birthday party. Should we have a clown? No, kids are scared of clowns. But we’ll need plenty of little wienies. Also, we walked right passed the Bacardi. This was damning evidence against our youth, as were my tennis shoes.

Now that we had some CiderBoys, we needed something to put it in. The Village bookstore seemed like the logical next stop. I’ve never spent so much time in a bookstore not getting books. We looked at all the clothes, all the cups, we washed the cups, we asked if the cups were BPA-free. Apparently we’ve become very thorough with age as well.

Then, it was off to our first house, the one I always think of when I think of college. We lived in the same place for both our sophomore and junior years (I know, we’re working backwards here). You guys, this place had all the makings of a college dwelling; a bowl full of primary colored condoms from the local Planned Parenthood in the entryway (which we pretty much only used to put over Ashlie’s phone and then call her so she’d pick up the spermicide-covered receiver), a thousand empty liquor bottles with plastic flowers in them and Christmas lights for decoration, and black mold.

When I think of that house, I think of so many random things … A sweet group of neighbor boys became dear friends. We had the same number as a local manicurist, Magic Nails. Eventually, we just started playing along. “Sure, sure, we can get you in,” we’d say. “But, just so you know, we only have black polish today.” We spent hours on this old ‘70s green couch on the front porch, drinking, talking, smoking. Contemplating who we would marry, where we would work, and how are dreams were ever-changing. People slept on that thing, which, it had to be moldy as hell given it never came in out of the elements. It was the perfect place to sit and yell at freshmen. Our landlord told us he would be like our second dad, and then shortly thereafter passed away. It was a weird period in my life where I honestly felt like we were starring in a sitcom. Of course, the Real World was still popular, so …

At some point, in the 13 years since we’d lived there, a new porch had been added. Our green couch had likely been burned. And no one was home to let us in. But that didn’t stop us from posing like we still rented the joint. I will always remember walking up the street to that house on Thursday afternoons after class, Friday nights, and early Sunday mornings. The porch light my beacon. The carpet in that house is, I’m certain, still stained with tears from my days spent laughing, watching The Sweetest Thing or Super Troopers for the 5,000th time.

We couldn’t squat on the porch forever. We made our way across campus. Fresh landscaping and signage and medians made the street I’d trekked so many times almost unrecognizable. New buildings stood where early twenty-somethings once tapped kegs and tossed bean bags till their arms gave out. It felt like we were strangers in a semi-familiar land. We’d moved on, and so had our campus. We walked past a police officer directing traffic. It was, after all, commencement weekend. I instinctively tucked my tumbler inside my handbag, forgetting I am now both of legal age to consume alcohol and only mildly buzzed and, therefore, entirely capable of carrying on an acceptable conversation.

The top floors of the dorm came into the horizon. There she was. Walking up, and then in, I must have said, “This is so weird! You guys, isn’t this so weird?” more times than anyone with a mild buzz could count. But it was just so weird.

When I was a little girl, my family camped a lot. One particular campground was on our regular rotation, primarily because it had the best playground. The slide was high, the swings let you touch the sky and there was a tire swing that made every kid puke. But my favorite, was this giant log cabin. I’d be on it and in it for hours. I’d tentatively move my feet over the grains, careful not to get a splinter or fall through the cracks. I’d recruit strange children to be the brother or the sister or the husband to my “house”. When I grew up and got a travel trailer and a family of my own, the first place we went was the campground with the best playground. But now it all looked different. The high slide with the exposed screws that scratched my thighs countless times, was gone. The swings were different. The log cabin was so small, so easy to conquer with quick, sloppy steps. It was nothing like the mountainous, American Ninja Warrior course in my memory. One thing, the tire swing, remained, and it still made kids puke.

This experience mirrors my return to the dorms.

“Here’s our chance,” Sarah said like a Bond girl closing in on her villain.

A short kid with beard stubble and a band t-shirt (the mandatory uniform for college kids) was walking out, and we slid right in. Then, as if kismet, a young gal carting her mattress off asked if we needed her to “swipe us up” to the rooms.

“Why, yes,” Ashlie responded.
I turned to the girls. “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! We’re really going up there! Oh my go–”
“Be cool, Court. Be cool,” Sarah demanded, stopping herself just short of smacking my face.

The elevator opened on the 6th floor. That was as high as the elevator went today, and as high as it went back then. Outside the elevator lobby was the bulletin board I’d been forced to decorate with facts about smoking when I got caught puffin’ a heater next to my box fan by the resident adviser. I believe it had a sad-looking skull and crossbones and the health facts were on clouds of white smoke. Very after school special.

A brief flight of stairs and we were there. We were standing in the hallway where we’d met, almost 16 years ago. It was dimly lit and empty, aside from one middle-aged woman standing at the end of the hallway on her phone. I stood, staring at the white board that hung on the door outside of the room where my brother had left me all those years ago. Where I’d spent my allotted 200 minutes per month calling my boyfriend, and he’d spent his calling card minutes calling me. Where I’d printed off and saved his poetic emails, predicting we’d get married someday. Where I’d counseled new friends and tried desperately to hold onto old ones.

Today, the door was locked. They were all locked.

But I could still picture the cheap oak furniture and sticky, stray hair-littered tile. I could envision my Urban Outfitters tapestry draped haphazardly behind my bunk. I could see a young girl wearing a tiny t-shirt, trying to grow into herself. It was as if I’d been there yesterday and then also never at all.

I turned to Ashlie, taking selfies in front of her door. Sarah was down talking to woman in the hallway. Turns out she’d lived in the same room as my loud, lovely friend, a little over 20 years ago. She was waiting on her own “Sarah” and “Ashlie” to come.

We went to the study lounge. Oddly enough, this and the bathroom brought back the most concrete detail to me. I sat on this floor and confessed to 30+ girls that a guy I’d let walk me home from a party peed in our laundry room sink. I did that, in this room. I made a million flashcards in here. I killed spiders in here. I imagined I was Felicity (you know, from the show Felicity) in here. The furniture was the same. The smell was the same. The dated lighting was the same.

“Did you live here?” a woman asked from a corner table (the resident housekeeper, we would deduct from context clues).
“We did,” Sarah answered.
“Yeah … lots of folks coming back to see it. You know, they’re tearin’ it down.”
“Yeah, that’s why we thought we’d make the trip,” Ashlie offered.
“Yeah, it’s too bad, but you know, it’s time. Windows are goin’. It’s old. But, I tell ya, of all the buildings I like this one the best. They leave their doors open and talk in the showers and all that. The other ones, their bathrooms are in the room and they never see each other.”

I remember the open doors.

“The woman who cleaned when you were here, she got a bad infection and lost both of her legs. You remember her?”

I didn’t remember her.

I was starting to feel like we were talking to the Ghost of Housekeepers Past.

The whole thing felt very Ebenezer Scrooge, actually. The two flickering fluorescent squares in the ceiling cast a harsh light down on an empty shell of a place that once held the voices and sagas of so many special young women, thrown together at a time in their lives when anything was possible, but it all felt so small. But without the awkward theater girl, without the news anchor girl who put a full face of makeup on before she went to bed, without the easy girls, the stoner girls, the funny girls, the homesick girls, the smalltown girls gone wild, this was just a line of cells, all locked up.

My purse brushed my leg and I felt something wet. My spiked cider had spilled all over the bottom of my Fossil bag. I guess that’s one of the big differences between day drinking in your 20s and day drinking in your 30s. The bags, in which you hide your liquor, are more expensive. It was time for us to go.

We walked around campus, popping in and out of buildings where we spent hours plastered in seats, taking notes, prying our eyes open. Where more than a decade ago, I’d written papers on affirmative action and the importance of ethical journalism and our wishes for the health of the world.

In between recollections that blew in the wind over newly paved streets, we passed twenty-somethings who’d just minutes ago turned their tassels. They were chatting with friends and sisters about who they’d marry, where they’d work, how their dreams were ever-changing.

I brought up the elevated CRP results (a sign of inflammation) I’d gotten from a blood test I took last week to the girls, who’d known me when I smoked a pack a day. After I brought up the topic out loud, I silently acknowledged how out of place it was for such a day. I thought about how much the weight of knowing real consequences is so heavy and so affixed to me now. I envied those graduates. They walked with a lightness I traded in for a 401K and vinyl fencing years ago.

After dinner at a new bar that stood in the place where a bar we once frequented had been leveled, resurrected and eventually closed, I climbed into Sarah’s car and we drove home. As the sun dipped down to meet the farm fields, we had one of those rich conversations, where you ask questions of the other person that make you question the important things about yourself. No matter how many times I have these talks with Sarah, and there have been many, they always feel like a gift, opened slowly and savored.

They’re the kind of talks that come after years of being witness to another person’s life. That come only after you’ve identified those thresholds for how much truth and perspective a person can take, and you come right up against them. We know where each other’s limits lie. She knows how to pull out my most authentic self, as do I hers. We were in my driveway in, what felt like, 5 minutes. I hugged her, twice. And I thought about all the hugs we’d shared after other goodbyes, after vows, after babies, after quick weekend visits, and I felt a little of my grad envy quietly slip away.

We’re given a small group of memories strong enough to stick. Some stick because they’re so catastrophic at the time, others because they held so much love, others because they made you laugh until your muscles spasmed. My college years are nearly exclusively composed of moments with these women, who I’m lucky enough to still see when the stars align. We revisit those concrete cells, that green couch, the mice-invested barn, through the stories we tell when we’re together. Honestly, given the chance, I don’t know that I’d go back to the dimly lit hallway where our love affair began.

When I hug Sarah, when I smell her hair and she squeezes the crap out of me, a flood of sweet, treasured times come back to me. And I wouldn’t trade those memories, many of which came after we left campus. We still talk about our jobs, our loves, our ever-changing dreams. It’s all still there. It just looks a little different. Has a few more players to consider.

I’m glad we said goodbye to the dorm, but I think we took the best of what was there 15 years ago when we left. Sometimes a building is just a building. Sure, it was the backdrop to one of the great comedies of our lives, but paint the backdrop something different and the stories are still the same. Once I sectioned off and parceled out what I needed to take – the best friends, the best memories, the best lessons – what remained was a picked over skeleton of a place once bloated with characters and interesting plots. There was nothing left for me there.

There’s something so authentic about those transitional moments in your life journey; leaving home, starting a family. They gift you with a magic you can’t reclaim, and you can’t recreate. But you can put them in a jar like a handful of lightning bugs and look in on them with wonder every now and then. In the end, just like that log cabin, a dorm is just a dorm. It gets smaller and less inspiring the farther away from it you get. I think I’d rather have those long, rich conversations riding in cars with friends. Battle-scarred, unbreakable, lifelong friends. Friends who know my shit and stick around, even when it stinks. They were the best of those times. And I took those bitches with me on my way out the door.

But still …

7th floor Brayton–Clevenger 4 Life! Peace!

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 14.3-21.1

May 3, 2017

I gradually woke up, cozy and rested on the side o–

Oh, shoot. That’s a lie. There goes my silly mind, romanticizing things again. Let me stop here and throw ‘er in reverse.

I woke up to the adolescent cackles of Just Matt and The General tooting and talking about their high school buddies in the tent above us. None of nature’s alarm clocks – the rose-gold sun, or the prattling river, or the amorous birds – would gently rouse the ledge full of tuckered out travelers from their hard-earned slumber. These two idiots would. When those clowns were up, everyone was.

The best breakfast I had on our trip was the one I had on the side of that mountain. My Trader Joe’s instant coffee with cream and sugar and – what else – freeze-dried Biscuits and Gravy, combined and expanded like a warm sponge in my depleted body and warmed me up. I wanted more than my half.

I sat the Mountain House bag of milky remnants next to the tent and went about my minimal hygienic upkeep. I pulled my toothbrush out first. My hand shook as I forced the very last of my travel-size tube of toothpaste out onto the frozen, matted bristles. I stepped back to pace the trail as I lathered up my gums. Then, something stopped me. It felt like lukewarm vomit spreading out over my foot. But it wasn’t. It was the soupy white remnants rapidly escaping the blue Mountain House bag and saturating my last pair of clean hiking socks; sparing the fabric only where the straps of my Tevas crossed. Frickin great, man. Now my pack not only smelled like 3 days worth of butt, but dehydrated sausage juice as well.

We started up the trail for what would be our final day of hiking. You know when you go for a jog and sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t? Well, on this morning, on this section of dirt, I just didn’t have it. Gravy went up ahead of me, focused on reaching the privy at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, just over a mile ahead. Just Matt kept me in sight for a bit, but eventually his Sasquatch stride naturally separated us. I felt weak and weighted. Every step required more energy than it should have. I started pounding the Rx Bars and Snickers I’d stashed in my waist pack pockets. I sucked on an energy Blok and hoped for the best.

But then, I was reminded of a phrase uttered frequently on our first venture to the Appalachian Trail, and it ignited an important conversation with myself: Hike your own hike, Courtney. Look around you. What’s your hurry? By dinner, this will all be over and you’ll wish you were starting again. My body was sending me signals to slow down and enjoy the journey and I was trying to juice it up and speed things along. And why? So I could breeze past the white blazes I’d been looking forward to seeing for months? I had to listen in the quiet, not rage against the voice. I pried my eyes up off my feet and regarded the tendrils of rich emerald leaves. The birthmarks on the trunks to my left and to my right. The sounds of the forest starting its day and getting down to the business breathing, sprouting, spreading, creating new life.

We stopped at Gooch Gap for a snack. I’d created the perfect trail mix of granola, Traders Joe’s Omega Trek Mix and Simply Almonds, Cashews and Chocolate, and I was now hammering it like a savage by the filthy handful. An elderly couple came down the path behind us and crossed the road to pick up the AT on the other side. “Hey guys, I’m going to go ahead since I’m slower today,” I said. The truth was, I was just happy to see people whose pace I could certainly match. I imagined the stories they would tell me about their time on the trail, their past. Maybe this was their 10th time doing the whole thing. Maybe they were just out for a section.

But it was a story I’d never actually hear. Because, you guys, they dusted my ass. Those two old birds traversed the AT like a pair of mountain lions and I sniffed their burnt rubber for at least a mile. The trails take all sorts of travelers, and the great ones have legs they’ve earned on the backs of boulders and jagged peaks. I had to admit, I’d just been schooled by a set of septuagenarians on making assumptions and respect for those who’ve put in the mileage.

We had a lot of company that morning in Georgia. One gentleman, from Florida, stopped The General to review his map.

“He’ll never make it,” The General said, after the kid walked on. “I can tell you within 3 minutes of talking to these people which ones are going to pull it off, and which ones are out of their league.”

As I write this, nearly 3,500 hikers are en route to Katahdin, and about 500 are heading south to Springer Mountain. Statistics tell us about one-third of these ambitious men and women (and children) will actually make it. This guy seemed to be struggling to navigate both the elements and the route, both of which have the ability to bend you over their knee and break you like a bitch.

After a few brutal climbs, we came to an overlook at Ramrock Mountain. It was sunny, beautiful. A collection of thru-hikers had gathered to eat Clif bars and chat. I saw the guy in a kilt and the woman with a dog who thought I was the other woman with a dog from the day before, a pair of girls clearly just out of college, Just Matt, and the elderly couple from earlier.

“Man, I tried to keep up with you two, but you were too quick for me!” I said, playfully, like a granddaughter would.
And just like a grandmother would, the woman smiled sheepishly, first at her husband and then at me, and said, “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. We could have waited for you if you were looking for someone to walk with.”

In my mind, they laughed and high fived each other the second I turned away. Thrilled at the fact they’d straight smoked another unsuspecting youngin. I wanted them to be my grandparents so bad.

Just Matt was antsy, and mentioned he hadn’t eaten anything since 3 p.m. the day prior. The promise of real food, namely a cheeseburger, gave him the strength he needed in this moment to push on and persist up the mountain. Before I could put my pack back on, he was gone. Tank was waiting at Woody Gap just over a mile away. He was ready for the reunion, for the road, for the beef.

Gravy had arrived and agreed to wait for The General, so I could go ahead. Truth be told, I kind of liked walking alone for a change.

As a society, we are searching. We think if we meditate, if we unplug, if we administer a digital detox, if we journal, if we cut out sugar, or gluten, or dairy, or red meat, we will unlock the hidden temple of peace. Myself included. I am, perhaps, the deepest worshiper of these beliefs. But honestly, I think the answers we want are already in us – bouncing around somewhere in the landfill of our frantic minds. If you spend enough time digging around up there, if you wait around long enough, and let all the crap filter out, the things you really want to hear will settle at the bottom. They’ll come to you.

Walking does that. Walking gives us enough time.

Somewhere between Moana lyrics and organizing our new camper, unbelievable truths appeared to accompany me on the trail. All the shit that typically gets diluted in the noise of motherhood and my career were suddenly barefaced in the solitude of the woods. I had to listen. Really listen. But they were in there.

I’ve been standing at the edge of the water – Long as I can remember – Never really knowing why … I could pack the girls’ clothes in the collapsible laundry basket and then use it for dirty clothes, and then if I get that 31 tote … I need to challenge myself more. I can’t remember the last time I felt like this. Gosh, Courtney, remember when you used to set big goals? Where’d that girl go? … Every turn I take – every trail I track – every path I make – every road leads back, to the place I know – where I cannot go – Where I long to be … Ah! My ankle just turned. That hurt. OK, we’re good … What should I do next? I need to clean up my diet, that’s what I need to do … Am I a good mother? I wonder what my kids will say about me when they’re older … That girl has those cute pants like Lydia had. Ask her where she got them. Just ask her. Ask her. Ask her. Ugh! Great, now she’s gone and I’m going to have to spend an hour on Pinterest tracking these pants down.

Still wearing my down vest and pants, I was really starting to sweat in the 70-plus-degree heat. I knew I had to be nearing the end of the section, so I decided to stop at a small water source and wait for my husband and The General, so we could finish together. One by one, the thru-hikers came. First, the guy in the kilt and the gal with the dog. They slowed and eventually agreed they’d get water.

“Where are you guys stopping tonight?” the gentleman asked.
“Actually, we’re getting off just up here at Woody Gap.” I said.
“Oh, wow! So you’re really almost done then.” the gal commented.
“Yup! We like to do this for our spring break. Then it’s back to reality and kids and jobs and responsibility,” I whined.
“Yeah, I hear that. I’ve been missing my kids,” the guy said.
“You have kids?” the girl asked, surprised. Which surprised me because I assumed these two were trailmates and had likely already covered this territory. I was also admittedly surprised that a young guy like this who had walked the AT, he claimed, several times had a wife and a kid. I mean it takes the assemblage of a small army and a willing village for Gravy and I to take off and do this for 5 days. And that’s just 5 days. Again, I’d fallen into the pit of assumptions. I had more in common with kilt guy than I’d thought.

After what felt like 40 minutes, I gave up on the rest of my party showing up and decided to walk into Woody Gap alone. I tiptoed over a waterfall, jumped from boulder to boulder, came around a bend in the trail and there it was, the parking lot. I was heartsick that it was over, to be honest. All the preparation and the anticipation and the effort would quietly absorb into the stories I would tell of our time on the trail in just a few steps.

I came upon Just Matt, who’d changed into shorts and a T-shirt, sitting in Tank. The truck was running and he looked like he was ready to hit the gas at the first signal. Gravy and The General came up about 10 minutes after me. The General was quick to tell the story of his run in with the thru-hikers, at the same water source where I’d left them.

“They asked if Hank was your husband and said he’d just missed his wife. Then I said, ‘Who? Biscuits?!’ and they proceeded to tell us that your trail names were too easy, too basic.” I think he felt offended since The General had assigned those names to us about a year ago and a few hundred miles north (as a crow flies). I wasn’t offended. I smelled too bad to take offense to anything. The General went to the public restroom to bathe in baby wipes, and then we all climbed into Tank and started the vomit-inducing road out of the mountains. It was like an evil snake with no tail, you guys. It went on for years. I was green.

Eventually we came to a straight away where a Wendy’s, nestled inside a gas station, sat, waiting for my carnivorous brother. The Masters were on. Not a word was spoken. Just the sounds of bun and burger being shredded by teeth and jostled around between gums and dry lips. They were burgers 3 days in the making. This stop would be followed by dinner at a Big Boy outside of Cincinnati at 9:45 p.m. that night. Only at a greasy restaurant whose mascot is a tubby boy in checkered overalls is it acceptable to order a side of what I believe to be doctored up tartar sauce to dip your french fries in. And you bet your sweet ass I did.

As the space between my body and my typical life shrunk, I felt myself slipping back into my routine. I frantically returned to the 800 minuscule worries and tasks I’d set aside while walking. I sat, curled up in the back seat, watching light poles tick by and thinking about the ground I’d covered. I was smiling, longingly, like the way you smile when you see a new mom with a fresh little baby and you think about your own days of rocking and smelling and squeezing soft little butt cheeks.

My friends think I’m crazy. Acquaintances politely regard the hobby as “interesting”. But it’s so much more than privy pots on cold mornings and rodents. When I think about backpacking, I think about my comfort zone. I think about the reward that comes on the other side of obstacles and the way getting there changes me. Every time I do something that brings me off autopilot and forces me to reconnect with my instincts, I feel stronger, clearer, more awake in this life. When I’m counting my steps, working my way slowly up the side of a steep summit, I feel so aligned. I feel like my mind and body are communicating for the first time in months. Like I can hear the screams that are typically muffled by mundane responsibility and my own self doubt.

And again, there’s that word … perseverance.

I love the concept of perseverance. More than anything, I want my girls to know that they can, and should, always persevere over what hinders, haunts or hurts them. I – and they – have unimaginable strength sleeping just on the other side of fear. If it’s scary, that’s OK. If it hurts, all the better. Sometimes, it’s those feelings that surge in the pit of your stomach that signal it’s all going to be worth it. That’s what backpacking does for me. It frightens me just enough to stretch my limits and takes me to that uncomfortable place where change resides.

I have anxiety, right? And I think people who struggle with the constant dripping faucet of anxiety can understand when I say that a normal day, week, month, sometimes feels like walking through a rose bush. As lovely as the flowers can be, it also leaves hundreds of tiny little cuts. The journey often leaves me bleeding, aching and irritated, but the bouquet in the end keeps me coming back. Being out there, in the unadulterated air, with my thoughts and the crunch of my boots, smooths over the gashes. It heals me. It tastes like sun tea with honey and rose petals and feels like my oldest t-shirt. At least for a few days. It’s the same feeling I get when I put my ear to my daughter’s chest and listen to her heartbeat. Each thud sends purpose surging through me.

And it’s the culture of the trail, the people. To be frank, there are times it’s hard to be a human in this world in its current condition. I panic about our future and the abuse of basic rights I’ve taken for granted. But with no phone, no push notifications, no “breaking” anything, it all feels a lot simpler. The current events of the trail are related to weather conditions and record setters, not press conference blunders and cruel, unthinkable acts that my heart just can’t seem to process. I feel safe around this species. The people you pass (98 percent of them, at least) want to know how your journey is going, and help if you need it and encourage you and stand under the majesty of what God gave us with you. It’s the softer, more digestible version of humanity.

We’ve been off the AT for about a month now. The chicks ask about the mountains a lot, and tell us they can’t wait to join us on the Appalachian Trail, and every fiber of my being hopes that day comes. Nothing would make the path sweeter than having my daughters’ footprints beside my own and their fingers against the white bark of a blaze.

Until we meet the path again, I’ll go in search of smaller, closer trails, and that same revealing quiet. I want to thank everyone who asked about our small adventure and followed these posts. I hope it awakens your wanderlust and leads you to a corner of the world that heals what aches in you.

Read about Miles 6.2-14.3

Read about Miles 0-6.2

Read about Miles 28.3-30.7 + Springer Mountain

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 6.2 – 14.3

April 26, 2017

Morning came.

That’s right … By the grace of God, the sun rose sheepishly above the trees just beyond the pavilion and each of us had all of our limbs, and a pulse and a different theory about the headlights from the night before. It’s funny, in those startling moments when the lights crept in and filled the thin fabric walls of the tent, no one had uttered a word. But now, come dawn and the promise of another day, we were discovering that each of us had been awake. And each of us had entertained our own demented impending plot twist. (Granted, some more dramatic than others.)

After a few minutes of lingering in the sticky, sour-smelling warmth of our sleeping space, we emerged, one by one, out onto the cement carpet. When you’re frozen, everything feels hard, unyielding. I turned my face toward the morning sun, which was doing everything in its power to heat the pavilion where our dewy gear laid about on high picnic tables, and sipped my coffee. Maybe if I imagine a beach … if I focus on each stream of light, I can fabricate warmth, I thought.

My mind was weaker than my coffee.

History told us that movement is truly the only cure for numbness, and my lifeless extremities were screaming, demanding, I take my first steps. When we left Hickory Flats, we had just over 8 miles ahead of us. It was our third day on the trail and the first time we would walk without rain.

As our frigid, pathetic parade made its way down the path and past the white blazes, my fingers and toes slowly came back to me. I can’t say for sure, but it seems as if almost every morning on the AT begins with an incline. I see it as Mother Nature’s bitch slap to your lungs, heart and legs, and a great way to get the blood pumping. This ridiculously crisp morning was no different. As I put one heavy foot in front of the other, I felt my internal temperature rise and sweat start to gather under the lining of my wool cap. One extreme to the other. Perfect.

Not long into our walk, we came to a breath-taking babbling stream. It was the kind people write poems about. The current made the water twinkle and wink beneath my feet. I stood on a rock and looked down to chaperone the elements’ dance. As the guys went about attaching hoses and filling water bladders, I observed the incoming traffic. It was a busy morning at the stream, as thru-hikers who stayed at nearby Stover Creek Shelter came by in pairs to fill up.

A pair from South Africa stopped first. The one had just finished a temporary position as an auditor in New York and hit up his buddy, who was currently residing in Canada, to try the trail before he had to return. They’d made this plan just two weeks ago on a whim and the idea that it “looked neat”. My eyes were wide with astonishment and jealousy. Next came a cavalcade of lively, starry eyed youngsters. Most of them just two or three days into their attempt to cover the entire AT, optimism clung to their faces like shiny makeup. They were high on the newness of their endeavor … the buzz of this temporary and rugged minimalism. I got it. I was rooting for them. We indulged their chatter about breakfast and trail legs before parting.

The warmer I got, the more I relished this dry, sunny day. We came to a crossing with a wide log, and I decided to express the turn in my mood through the universal language of dance. I hopped up, Gravy and Just Matt behind me, The General already across, and started recreating one of my favorite scenes from the iconic, never-to-be-forgotten chick flick, Dirty Dancing. “Heeeeeeey, hey, baby! I wanna know-oh …”. I gingerly maneuvered back and forth with the necessary pep to really sell it. “Do you have your phone out, Matt? Are you getting this?” I asked, like a 6 year old attempting her first cartwheel. “No.” he said. Flame completely extinguished, I dismounted the log on the other side. “Dick.” I whispered to myself but also, I kind of thought, loud enough to reach The General’s ears. But the face I found when I looked up was not that of our dear old family friend, like I’d been expecting. It was a stranger. Dressed in neon yellow. A stranger who had been waiting for our group to cross and witnessed my Baby moment in all its glory.

The boys had a field day with that one.

Whatever. My performance was on point, and everybody knew it.

We stopped at The Hawk Mountain Shelter for breakfast. Hank and I whipped up some oatmeal while Just Matt raised the waterline in the privy. The General sipped on a mug of hazelnut instant coffee as we chatted about the logistics of ick spreading on the AT. See, hikers’ hygiene isn’t exactly a gold standard out there, and if one person gets sick, and they stay in a shelter, and what comes with a sickness comes out inside the three walls, chances are someone else is going to come into contact with that mess. Then they get sick and the gift goes on, and on and on. I remember talk of a nasty strain of the stomach flu going around the Tennessee and North Carolina sections when we went out last year. Nasty stuff. I stood down on the ground, out of the shelter that morning. I mean, I only had so much toilet paper and tolerance for bodily functions behind tree trunks.

It was windy, but a beautiful day to walk in the woods. The temperature seemed to rise with the mountains’ inclines, causing me to peel off layers, and drop as the wind whipped through, bringing my hood back up to intercept the chill. We stopped for lunch at a clearing along an access road called Coopers Gap. The strong breeze bullied my empty mayonnaise packets as I pulled my jacket up around my face to shield my skin.

The magical thing about being out on the AT is the diverse landscapes. You never know when you turn a corner or come to the top of a mountain what you’re going to find on the other side. After several miles of pretty-but-predictable mountainside woods, we came upon a Secret Garden-style labyrinth of lush greenery. The trunks of the trees twisted and jutted up against each other, flirting, mingling. The roots rose out of the ground, each set forming an enchanting wooden helix. The verdant leaves were a deeper hue than any of the growth we’d seen up to this point, drawing our eyes upward with their rich, emerald presence. The sunlight poked through keyhole openings of various shapes in the canopy covering this charming section.

We worked our way through the maze, admiring its intricacies, until we came upon a clearing. Below us, a stream rushed across perfectly distributed stones. It was picturesque, perfect. This was Justus Creek, where we would be camping tonight. It was a pleasant upgrade from the cement slab we merely tolerated the night before. We crossed the water and marched our way up a steep elevation to the campsites; six flattened planes on the side of the mountain. We picked our square and went about setting up. The sun was bathing us in luxurious heat now. A branch that died months, maybe years, ago cracked and fell about 4 feet from our spot on the ledge. A good sign, indeed.

I changed into my sandals, grabbed a mug full of red wine and my notebook, and ventured back down to the steps beside the stream. I sat to collect some thoughts, the comforting soundtrack of the stream in the background fueling my recollection. This, I thought, is why we do this. This is the prize.

I felt silent inside. Clear. Calm. For perhaps the first time in months.

“Where’s your dog?” an approaching thru-hiker inquired.
“Me? Oh, um … I don’t have a dog.”
“Oh, sorry! You look just like this other girl on the trail. She has a dog.”

I wish I was a thru-hiker out here with a disciplined, friendly pup, I thought to myself. But no. I am a suburban mom with a corporate job and an old bitch of a dog who whines at the wind and drags her butt on my carpet. Close, but not quite there. They moved on and I disappeared again into my stream of consciousness.

I loved to listen to the waves of wind crashing through the forest. The tops of the trees, still barren from winter, would rub together like a group of bucks locking antlers, generating the most peculiar sounds.

About 20 minutes later, a young woman and older gentleman approached the stream. She was wearing a blue raincoat and coaching her adorable little shepherd dog, Maggie, across the rocks.

“Hi there,” I greeted.
“Hi!”
“You must be the other me,” I joked. She just looked at me indulging my eye contact out of sheer kindness. “A couple that came along earlier mistaked me for you. We must look similar.”
“Oh!” she sighed, and smiled.
“You look tired. Come a long way today?”
“Kind of. We go pretty slow because my dad has bad knees. We stopped for breakfast at the Hickory Flats Cemetery, but didn’t linger.”
“We stayed there last night.”
“You did? Was there a young guy there?”
“Actually, yeah!”
“Well, he was still there. He kept packing and unpacking his gear.”
“He was doing that when we were there!”
“Yeah, I teach mentally challenged kids and that’s a huge sign that something’s going on. My instinct was to move on, and my instinct is usually pretty dead on.”

Oh. My. Lanta.

I knew it. I knew there was a Stephen King vibe coming off that lil fella. I would say 98 percent of the people you meet on the trail are a delight, but the other 2 percent are scary AF, my friends.

Biscuits No. 2 walked up the trail to the campsites, my mind like the exploding car behind the badass in an action film in her wake, still reeling at her observation. I sat for a few more minutes, until the sun touched the top of the treeline and threatened to disappear completely. I walked back up to have dinner with Gravy. And maybe two more mugs of wine. And maybe a chewable melatonin.

My entire body was a pool of content, peaceful jelly. I was on the side of a mountain with some of my favorite people on the planet, dulled by a few mild sedatives and downright jubilant. We sat, the four of us, chatting and giggling. Just Matt from his sleeping bag inside the tent. The General balancing in his squatty, collapsible chair. Gravy and I perched on a log dressed in an inch of dirt. Our faces were pink from wind and early spring rays, and the blush that comes from sipping a cheap red blend dispensed from a bladder that once lived inside a box.

The boys were having the same argument they’d been having for three days now: What do you call a group of bears. We’ll call it 45 bears, for good measure. We asked Ridgerunner Lydia, who guessed a pack. I, too, guessed a pack. Herd was thrown out there as a suggestion. Still, the debate raged on for the entirety of our time in Georgia, and via text all the way back to the Midwest. (The answer is actually a sloth, in case your curiosity is killing you.)

A tiny mouse scurried by and earned a huge reaction from our group. People always shudder when I mention the critters known to make their way into the shelters and campsites. But truth be told, they didn’t bother me much, because they weren’t much of a bother. This little guy was the first true wildlife we’d seen up close, and he was gone as fast as he’s arrived.

He was turning in and, after a walk down the trail for a potty break and tooth brushing, so were we. I nestled in next to my husband. “Do you hear the water?” he asked, a few minutes after we’d settled. I did. And that was the last thought I had before I drifted off.

Read about Springer Mountain + Miles 28.3-30.7

Read about Miles 0-6.2

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 0 – 6.2

April 19, 2017

“When I os taken him up pear, he told me he a, he had the cancer. So, I stopped anduh got him a gallun a whiskey anda carton a cigarettes and I took him up air to-a the mountain anda I’m not sure but I think he died in August dat year … Me and my partner hada motel we ran and it was fulla, pardon my french, prostitutes and druggies when we bought it and a, we bought it on April 2, 2009. And we ran it and that. And then a, my partner, he died on April 2, 2011, see. … Now, you guys look strong, but they call me Don’t Give a Damn Sam and ifya need me to come getcha, I’ll come up ear and getcha. Just not when I’m fixin to go to bed, em k? I take 5 Benadryl and 3 Unisoms, and I ain’t gettin’ outta my bed once I’m en dare. … Oh yeah, we had a guy die of a heart attack right dare and a girl hung herself on a tree right over dare and uh, yeah, the trail can be a lonely place. I mean, I’d be lyin if I didn’t say I hadn’t thought about it myself. Well, y’all member that girl and her dog, dontcha? Someone took her from the mountain and, uh, well, he cut her head off. Yup, he de-cap-a-tated her.”

I could hear Sam Duke, our colorful chauffeur through the mountains, from the back seat, where I sat staring at Just Matt’s hairline trying not to vomit. Sam was from Louisiana, and his personal slogan was, “Let er rip, patata chip!”, a phrase we uttered no less than 89 times over the next three days. He’d picked us up at the Woody Gap parking lot, where we left Tank with the promise we’d return at a reasonable hour on Saturday. In our 45 minutes with Sam on the winding service roads of the Appalachian Trail en route to Springer Mountain, we discovered that everyone who had ever come into contact with Sam Duke had, shortly thereafter, died. Small talk with the Grim Reaper was not how I’d envisioned starting the rest of our section hike. Nonetheless, here I was.

Despite the disheartening development that we were now destined to be eaten by a bear or snatched by an escaped serial killer, it wasn’t all bad news for us. Because of our last-minute change of plans, Gravy and I were able to unload some clothing items and a day’s worth of meals from our packs. When you’re shouldering 30+ pounds and 50+ pounds, respectfully, every ounce dropped is cause for celebration.

Here’s what we ended up with:

And:

Gravy carried much of the same, plus our tent and water pump. We split the weight of the food right down the middle. There are always things you’d adjust after the fact. I would have upped my coffee game, especially given the afternoon I was walking into. A few extra packets would have been a real morale booster; the more toxic sugar, the better. Speaking of, I picked up some Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee with Cream and Sugar and those packets were like drops of what the angels drink. Much better than the straight Via packets, in my opinion.

We exited Sam Duke’s mini van and stepped out into the parking lot at the trailhead. It was 30-something degrees, blowing and sleeting. It’s never good when you hold your hand out to gather precipitation and ask, “What is this shit?” Of course, I had to pee. I wandered off down a trail to find the widest tree and watched Sam drive away. Ah, fudge. We’re really doing this. The rest of my crew was standing by the Springer Mountain map, filling water bladders and situating gear. Lydia, a young female Ridgerunner, walked up from the general vicinity of the grass I’d just watered. Lydia’s role on the trail was to stay on a section to answer questions about gear, shelter and strategy, and educate hikers on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy initiative, Leave No Trace, their effort to minimize damage to the natural environment along the AT. (The jobs you wish you’d known about 12 years ago, right?) As she engaged in polite small talk, all I could hear was the sound of my inner girl crushin’ on her pants. They kind of looked like equestrian riding pants, but stretchier and warmer; Much cooler than my traditional cargo mom hiking pants. They must be a thing now because a bunch of chicks we saw had them. I was putzing around in farty fashions, showing my age for sure, at least from the waist down. It all felt very first day with a headgear to me.

We started down the trail and took our first steps in a three-day adventure. I followed behind Just Matt and The General as they perfected their Sam Duke impersonations and tallied the body count. The laughter worked as a warmer to counteract the piercing snow-water sludge diving at my face, and I was thankful. Not far in, we stopped at Stover Creek Shelter to make adjustments and get a little snack. Lydia was there. As were her cute pants. Just Matt made no adjustments and just looked on annoyed as we made small talk about bear canisters, the weather the night before and traffic on the trail. See, Just Matt didn’t like this part of it. He packed only bars (no “dehydrated bullshit”) and reminded all of us regularly, through both his verbal and nonverbal communication, just how much he hates to stop for any reason other than sleep or shit.

Lydia predicted the Three Forks Shelter, where we’d planned to stay, would be pretty crowded that night given the chilly temps they were predicting. She mentioned the Hickory Flats Cemetery and Pavilion as a better option. It was just a couple miles away and we were making great time. I mean nothing will motivate you to move your ass like numb fingers and perilous mud puddles.

I disappeared into my head a bit, thinking about everything and nothing at all, and before I even found my stride, I came to The General at a service road crossing.

“What’s up?” I asked.
“That pavilion is right over here, if you want to check it out.”
“K.”

It was 1:40 pm and 36-or-so degrees.

I started counting the hours on my bright pink fingers as I shuffled toward the cemetery. If we left at 8 o’clock the next morning, we would be here for 18 hours.

18 hours.

At a cemetery and open-air pavilion.

In 30-degree weather.

We walked under the roof to assess our accommodations for the evening. There was a young gentleman sitting in a plastic chair facing the trees. He turned and acknowledged us in a polite but minimal way. At this point, the rain was really starting to pick up, so I assumed our pavilion mate was waiting out the storm. I set my pack down and walked over to the bathroom. It had four walls – four walls! – and stood as a literal symbol of the term, “built like a brick shithouse”. I stepped in, out of the wind and into an eery silence. It was a silence that almost had to precede something horrific. I more than half expected to find a friend of Sam Duke’s propped up in a stall. But spooky as it was, it was easily 10 degrees warmer than outside. I stood in the sturdy privy not sure where I wanted to go. I didn’t have to use the drop potty, necessarily, but I didn’t really want to stand around with the frozen sausage fest in the pavilion, either. So, I stood. I stood in a brick potty and just stared at the wall. I stared at the cobwebs in the corners. I stared at the names carved into the plank over the stall built for those with shower bags. I stood and let my frozen mind thaw out with concocted tales of terrible scenarios that played out within these walls. I just stood.

Eventually, I found my big girl parachute panties and pulled them up. I strolled out to the pavilion and started going about the business of making lunch. It was 2 pm and we were strategizing tent setup so we could – what else – turn in for the night. During a break in our chat, The General turned to the young guy sitting next to us, still staring off into the woods.

“You start the trail yesterday?” he asked.
“No,” the kid said.
“Tuesday?”
He shook his head, no.
“Oh man,” The General said. He then turned back around and gave us the big eyes.

It would appear this little guy was having a really hard time getting himself up the AT. Granted, the weather hadn’t been great, and there are a million factors that can crush people at any point in their hike, but one would likely be farther than this 3+ days in. Whatever his deal, it seemed like maybe his meditation was coming to an end and he would be moving on soon. He slowly, quietly stood and started meticulously packing up his gear. He rolled his sleeping mat smoothly and snugly. He checked his food bag and then reclosed it, twice. When all was said and done, he spent 2 hours pulling his shit together. Two hours. Then, he grabbed a water bottle and started off down the road. Huh.

Just Matt was antsy. He’d misplaced his gloves back at Woody Gap and, after finishing a mug of coffee (and sharing his extras with the group), he was ready to hibernate. He and The General put their tent up in about 15 minutes. Gravy, on the other hand, spent a good deal of time strategizing over our sleeping arrangements, since our modest two-person tent required ground for staking into. This was more of a concrete slab situation, so … And I’m not entirely helpful in these situations when I’m not frozen, so …

After several minutes of contemplation, it was decided that Princess Biscuits and Prince Gravy would be resting their royal heads in a makeshift tent under a large picnic table. Gravy draped a hammock tarp over the wood structure and used concrete blocks to hold it down around the outside. We put a tarp down on the ground, our mats on top of that, and we were all set.

Somehow we’d made it to 5 pm and so my counterpart and I decided to go ahead and start dinner. Just Matt and The General had been in their tent for almost an hour already, but Lawd knows I don’t skip meals. They’d turned into a mumbled screen of farts and giggles. (We’re talking about two 40 year olds here.) We boiled water for our freeze-dried Southwest Lasagna, cupping our hands around the scorching dew of the device for pleasure. The rain and snow had subsided, leaving just a straight up cold to harden the cemetery ambiance.

Our neighbor came back.

And then, just as carefully as he’d begun, he initiated the tedious process of unpacking his gear.

Yes, unpacking.

See, he packed it. And now he was unpacking it.

It was time for me to go to bed. I crunched on a 10mg chewable melatonin, brushed my teeth, and had a nonverbal conversation with my husband about the strange behavior playing out beside us before crawling under the table. I put the tarp door back into place and zipped myself into my wine-colored sleeping bag, secretly wishing I were drunk. I was wearing my wool cap, down accessories and long underwear. A sliver of early evening sunlight rubbed against the end of our “tent” to remind me it was approximately 6 pm.

But the sun’s light was a liar. I started to shiver about 20 minutes after I laid down, and began having flashbacks of Roan Highlands Shelter, also known as “the night mama almost died”. I inch-wormed my way backward out of our tent. Gravy was still cleaning up camp. Just Matt and The General were generating a massive amount of heat in their tent. I knew this only because I heard the expression, “sweating my balls off,” a handful of times from my icy cocoon. I stood up and looked at my husband, my trailmate, my life partner, and I told him the thing no one wants to have to tell their loved one.

“I’m getting in there with them,” I said.
“Like, for the night?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”

His feelings of abandonment sliced through my whiny tone as I crouched down and unzipped the door to my brother and my almost-brother’s temporary bachelor pad. It wasn’t warm. But it wasn’t freezing, either. I claimed a spot on the very edge as the two nudged up against each other in their nylon encasings. After 34 years of friendship, I was confident this wasn’t the first time they’d spooned (heads on opposite ends, of course) but it was certainly the only time I would remember.

About 40 minutes later, Just Matt had to pee. Since he was the patty in the hamburger, we all decided to get up and try. After that, my chill started to subside and I was able to drift off to sleep. My husband’s head was just a tent wall, tarp and picnic table leg away from mine, so I could quietly check in on him. When everyone was finally settled, I drifted off to sleep. The crack of a grown man’s fart piercing the peace of the pavilion jolted me awake every hour or so, but still I was warm and mildly content.

At some point after the sun went down, the tent filled with the vibrant muted yellow tone of car headlights and the familiar sound of gravel popping under tires. Someone was in the pavilion parking lot. My mind started firing.

Oh my gosh, they’re looking for that kid. I wonder if he’s still out there. Or, maybe he called a shuttle to come pick him up because he’s freezing and ready to get off the trail. Or maybe it’s the police coming to get him because he’s wanted. Or maybe they’re looking for another hiker who got off the trail and is in trouble. Or maybe they’re workers using the bathroom. Or maybe that kid was a scout and he called some serial killer who is now here to kill all of us and leave our bodies in the cemetery. I hope he doesn’t look under the picnic table. Damn you, Sam Duke! Damn you.

I found myself again just praying to make it to morning.

To be continued …

Read about Miles 28.3-30.7 and Springer Mountain

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 28.3-30.7 + Springer Mountain

April 14, 2017

Despite the magenta and neon red splotches with flashing cores parading behind the weather gal delivering the national forecast with an exaggerated drama she’d clearly practiced the night before. Despite the warning from Sam Duke, our would-have-been shuttle driver that morning. Despite the daunting, lead-colored sky, on a Wednesday morning in early April, a humble but determined band of hikers found themselves scaling modest boulders on the side of Blood Mountain, the highest peak in the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.

I was the lone woman among this modest herd. Carbon fiber poles in hand, I heaved my weight up staggered rocks and scurried down slippery flat stones as drunken strings of the day’s downpour ran across and spilled over the bill of my hat and dropped onto my raincoat.

Oh, hello there, Mother Nature. It’s been too long.

The uncertainty of Her mood makes the vast wilderness both a magnet and a menace to me. She throws violent tantrums and then lures me back with fiery sunsets and soothing streams and masterful arrangements of stars. I liken her to the college roommate who said really beautiful things when she was stoned, but broke a lotta stuff when she drank.

So, why don’t I just break up with Her? Well, because as much as that bitch can break me down, she heals me, too.

If you’ve followed DSS for awhile, you might remember our hike on the AT last April. After nearly freezing to death in a tent on top of Roan Mountain, we made the collective decision to journey further south this year and knock out the start of the trail, beginning at Springer Mountain, in Georgia.

“I think you’re going to be pretty happy with the weather in those parts,” The General had said in February. “Real happy …”

As the week drew closer, we gathered our gear and laid out our freeze-dried dinners and watched helplessly as the conditions down south grew worse and worse. First, it was rain all four days. Then the declaration of downpours lessened, but the temps plummeted to the 30s. I thought we picked Georgia so we could get away from that shit! When you get one section a year, you hope to heck it’s a good one. It was definitely shaping up to be a long underwear kind of trip.

I pacified myself by cursing the Weather Channel app every day until the Tuesday we loaded our gear and our hesitant bodies into Just Matt’s big Ram truck (“Tank”) and hauled ass out of the Midwest to find solace in the great outdoors. Said solace wasn’t going to come easy. An accident on the interstate brought traffic to a halt for several hours around lunchtime. An eternity in Hell has nothing on the agony of spending that much time in crawling traffic with a full bladder, a Joe Rogan podcast where he’s more stoned than usual, and an impatient driver with a grounded lead foot. After a lifetime of slugging and snaking, we came to civilization again. Starving. Of all the options and all the restaurants, the men in the front seats chose White Castle for our late lunch. White Castle! Since I have tastebuds and my mother’s cantankerous intestines, I took it easy. But the boys didn’t hold back – a decision that would come back to haunt Just Matt the next day, to the surprise of no one.

After a quick REI stop in Knoxville, we pulled into Blairsville, Georgia around 11:30 that night. With lots of talk about town of tornado warnings and predictions of softball-sized hail, we knew it was time to check in with The General.

“Well, I called Sam Duke,” he said. (Sam Duke was our shuttle driver, scheduled to pick us up at 8 am the next morning.)
“Yeah?”
“He said, ‘I wuyundt duy it!’”
“He did?”
“Yup. He said, ‘Y’all can do whatcha whant, but the trail is alays gonna be dare. You won’t if ya dead.’”

And with that, the decision was made. We would meet Sam Duke another day.

Wednesday morning, over a cardboard continental breakfast Belgian waffle, The General, Gravy, Just Matt and I sipped small cups of coffee and listened to the local weather guy instruct Georgians to, “work from home if they could.” But we saw some windows, and gosh dangit, we came to hike.

The General went to work rerouting our course. We would get on at Neel’s Gap and slackpack Blood Mountain (which was intended to be on our fourth and final day) as a day hike, 2.4 miles in and 2.4 miles out. Once we conquered this summit, if there was still enough non-life-threatening minutes left in the day, we would drive over and complete Springer Mountain, which is technically, and I did not know this before that day, not part of the official AT mileage. It’s before Mile 0. The more you know [shooting star].

So, now we’re all caught up. The crew. Slippery rocks stacked on top of each other. Polls. Lightening.

One of my favorite things about hiking is the disconnect. I work in marketing, and I am responding to email, following up on Facebook messages, retweeting, typing, posting, fire extinguishing all day long. When you have to climb all the way to a mountaintop to get a signal, it’s really refreshing. But there, on a hill called Blood Mountain, under the ominous clouds of an unpredictable storm, these typically separate worlds collided. Up ahead of me I heard the distinct tones of a weather alert scream from Just Matt’s phone, followed by the rumble of thunder in the distance. It was so polarizing. We had made the decision to walk at the mercy of nature that day, but our modern day devices pulled and pleaded at us to rethink the vulnerability. We didn’t.

As we climbed up, it felt like the clouds came down to meet us as light fog enveloped our path. Eventually, we made it to the Blood Mountain Shelter, a magical-looking structure that rests in the shadows of Blood Mountain’s intimidating rubble. I used the privy and snapped some pictures of the overlook. My brother was ready to get moving. See, Matt was experiencing his White Castle sliders for a second time. I believe the comment was: “I’m scared if I fall on my ass diarrhea is going to shoot out of my mouth.”

I should have known better than to laugh. I mean, karma has gotten me before. But laugh I did. And on our squirrely descent back down the way we came, I ate shit. I felt my feet start to go, then there was a brief battle between my upper and lower bodies, and then, a second of serenity in that moment when I accepted the fate. I braced for contact. The group got quiet in anticipation of my ass’s connection with the stone below it. Had I been struck by lightning? No, oh no. Just a private demonstration of the grace God gave me. I made some indistinguishable noises in the space of their halted conversation. Then I crashed down, sending my poles flying off in both directions. My right hand and butt cheek took the brunt of it. Since people falling down is my favorite thing, I enjoyed a good laugh before I gathered up the puddle I had become and carried on. Then I laughed 50 more times as I replayed the scenario in my head.

Another window in the weather opened the door for a climb up Springer Mountain. But first we had to drive there. Every road in Georgia that leads to a trail takes 40 minutes or more and has more curves than a Playboy. Left … right …. Left … right … I took two dramamine and it didn’t put a dent in the dizzy. Every 5 seconds a yellow triangle with that damning squiggly arrow. Turns ahead. More. Turns. Ahead. I would pick a point on the horizon, but I was no match. The transportation part just destroyed me. Maybe that’s the cost of yellow blazing.

The rise to Springer was steady and manageable – Just one mile up and then back down. We posed next to the same plaque that Grandma Gatewood and Scott Jurek stood by. It felt like one of those moments where you should move something only semi-significant out of your memory so there’s room with extra padding for this moment, just to be sure. We lingered a bit. The smoky skies and gentle dew kisses suddenly felt fitting, rather than burdensome.

How do you end a day like that? When you’re going back to civilization to hide out from tornadoes rather than tent it? If you’re us, you eat 20 tons of Mexican food, clean up and climb into bed to watch My 600-lb Life with a king size Caramello. The rain and the cold and the fall all felt just fine given the promise of a hot shower, cable and two hotel pillows before sundown. Sleepless nights were tomorrow’s worry. And oh what a worry it would turn out to be …

Some Kinda Superwoman

Some kinda Superwoman: Kirsten

March 31, 2017

Almost 15 years have passed, but I can still call back the moment I held my first niece, all big-eyed and unassuming. It was the first time I felt comfortable holding a baby. Like, my brain and my body just knew she belonged to me in some small but important way. I remember thinking our family would never be the same, which turned out to be true. Our dynamic shifted on that day. My parents became grandparents, I became an aunt, my brother an uncle and so on. But moreso, the light that had, to that point, shined down on me and my siblings dimmed on our faces on that rainy August day and illuminated this fresh little soul, instead. We had a new axis. And I didn’t care one bit, which is rare for a baby-of-the-family type like myself. I was happy to step aside and let this tiny love nugget soak up all the attention that she so deserved and earned by being offensively adorable and blowing the most endearing spit bubbles.

A few years later, my sister told me she was pregnant again, and just after Christmas, she gave me my second niece. Then a few years later, my third niece. Then we were pregnant together and neither of us found out what we were having, and wouldn’t you know, spring brought a pair of chicks; one for each of us. Then, she got pregnant about four years after that and it was, you guessed it, another girl. At this point, it’s starting to get crazy, right? Well, unbeknownst to any of us, including my sister, she wasn’t quite done. In a surprise turn of events, this past fall Kirsten welcomed her sixth little bambina.

They’re beautiful, each of them. My sister’s husband is Mexican and Kirsten is tall, pale and blonde, so it’s a fun little genetics recipe to play with. Some are blessed with the beautiful olive tone and big brown eyes that will just straight up level you, Disney princess style, and others get to be curly towheads with our family’s signature blinding white complexion. The teams currently stand at Brownies: 2, Blondies: 3, TBD/Mashup: 1.

Sometimes I forget just how sensational my sister’s harem is. And then I have a moment of drowning in my own personal kiddie pool (by comparison) of estrogen. Three girls is a lot of emotion, I tell people. We’re never short on tears, drama or clogged toilets. And then I think about doubling down. I think about that feeling when you finish a half marathon and no way, ever, would you consider turning around and doing it again. But that’s my sister’s life. When I tap out and take my melatonin at 9, whipped and tattered from 13.1 miles complete, my sister is a short highway drive away, winding down from a full 26.2. She is a hardcore, badass marathon mama.

It earns her a bit of grace, I’d say. But she’s built for it. She’s my opposite in most every way. She knows when to just roll around in the sea of torn wrapping paper rather than frantically scoop it up and risk missing the moment. And that, I’d say, makes all the difference. Dancing rather than disinfecting. Laughing rather than laundry. It can all wait, and it will. I mean, the mess is multiplying by six at her house as we speak. But she is the perfect woman, partnered with the perfect man, for bringing a big ole gaggle of gals up right.

The stories that come out of her house are gold, as you might imagine. Someone’s always drawing on someone else’s face with permanent marker or painting themselves from head to toe in Desitin cream. Once a mouse got in the toilet. Her oldest, Olivia, who was much younger at the time, unknowingly sat down to go potty and, upon discovering the rodent clawing and frantically swimming beneath her bottom, screamed, “I pooped a mouse! I pooped a mouse! Mommy, Daddy, I pooped a mouse!” She wouldn’t sit on the can for weeks after that. There are self-administered haircuts that will live on in infamy and scars from sister-on-sister war crimes. But all in all, it’s pretty organized chaos.

People always ask me how she does it, and the truth is, I honestly don’t really know. But like any good journalist, I’m always willing to go straight to the source for you guys. So, settle in for this lovely little testimony from one of my favorite tired, brutiful mothers, who happens to be my big sister.

SOME KINDA SUPERWOMAN: KIRSTEN
– Written by the woman herself

December 26, 2015. I’m brushing my teeth and watching the screen of a digital pregnancy test. I say I’ll never forget it, but does anyone ever really forget those moments? The screen showed a clock flashing, then suddenly a “YES +”. I froze. My heart began to race and I felt hot from the inside out. This was not part of the plan. This was not on the family calendar. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but the reality is that in that moment that was not what I wanted. Two thoughts ran through my mind: First, “What will people think?” and then, “What does this mean for my plans and my dreams?” I had no idea how this surprise would fit into our already crazy family.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me introduce myself.

I’m the manager of this circus. I’m the one who attempts to hold this show together while delivering an appearance that resembles anything even near the neighborhood of normal. My fearless husband is our ring leader, and, doing various acts and flips and stunts in rings on either side of us, you will find six beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed, persistent, messy, hilarious, challenging little girls. Yes, I know, I know … SIX GIRLS! No, we were not trying for a boy. No, we aren’t Catholic. Each one of these little tyrants can take us from gut-wrenching laughter to the edge of a cliff in a matter of seconds, and to say it’s like a rollercoaster ride would be a laughable understatement.

On any given day, there will be at least one room (usually more) that I walk into and then immediately turn around, walk out, and shut the door. Today that would be Sloan’s (our fifth) and Izzy’s (our third). I truly believe that I would have better luck trying to teach those pigs to fly than I would have keeping this place clean. If you come over, you’re going to stick to my counters. You’re going to find more apple cores around my house than in the pages of a Berenstain Bears book. There’s no guarantee that a little surprise won’t still be lurking in the toilet when you go into our bathrooms. (WHY WON’T THEY FLUSH?!) I’ve also seriously considered just giving up and telling people we run a fruit fly breeding program. I mean we’ve got reproduction down in this neck of the woods. In other words, if you stop by unannounced and miss the very tiny window where I have tidied enough to present my pretend house to planned company, please bring a hazmat suit.

The truth is, whenever anyone asks me how we do it all, my answer is easy … we don’t! Hang around for 20 minutes and you’ll see for yourself.

I am not supermom. Mass chaos is considered the routine. I forget things all the time. I can’t tell you how many rolls of toilet paper we go through because, honestly, it’s too frightening to keep track. I yell. A lot. I go to the grocery store more than the bathroom. And you should see us all in the car. It’s like a clown car, only instead of men-children with their faces painted in freaky patterns, it’s grumpy, needy little gremlins fighting the entire trip over who looked at who first. (Did I mention they all suffer from extreme motion sickness? That’s right. Envy me, people.) Someone always feels left out or let down. Someone is always hungry. Someone always has to pee at the worst possible time. I’d love to tell you I’m Carol Brady reincarnate. I’d love to say that I’m patiently and calmly helping them learn to solve their problems and hug it out, but I’m not. I’m human. I’m reactive. I’m selfish.

This brings me back to the little surprise I mentioned earlier.

Two days after finding out I was pregnant I started bleeding. I wholeheartedly thought I was having a miscarriage. That was such a strange moment. Strange because I was terrified, and strange because just hours before, I’d felt so much uncertainty about what this baby even meant. This was one of those moments when I had to stop and get my poop together. (Yes, I said poop. I’ve adapted to censorship.) I had to start reevaluating what family means. I had to realize what I would be losing in this new adventure (plans, so-called dreams, schedules and calendars) didn’t amount to a hill of beans, as my dad would say, compared to this new little life.

Having a large family is extremely uncomfortable. That’s the honest-to-God truth. Nothing is easy. Nothing ever goes as planned. As I’m writing this, my husband is picking blue slime out of our three-year-old’s hair. We weren’t put on this earth to be comfortable, though. I truly believe we were put here to be challenged. That’s how we change and grow. I know it’s cheesy, but I often think about diamonds and how much pressure it takes to transform them from a nasty lump of coal into something beautiful. Challenges do that. They teach us. They mold us. I pray that when this journey of motherhood slows down, and my little gremlins are grown, I will see that I have helped mold my kids into loving, God-fearing women. I hope to accomplish that for them, but I know they are doing that for me.

We always talk about our responsibilities as parents and how difficult they can be. God help us all, it really is difficult. But what we don’t discuss enough is what we get out of it. Each and every one of my babies has a totally different personality, and each one of them teaches me something different about myself. It’s like being in a fun house and having six images, all different, but all reflecting me. They are my mirrors, pointing out everything beautiful in my life, but also every flaw. Sometimes what I see is hard to swallow, and even harder to accept, but without them I’d never unlock that piece of myself. I wouldn’t challenge myself to keep growing, and keep going.

Everyone tells you that your kids grow up fast. I have a 14-year-old! Trust me, it does go fast. Every day with them is a gift. I won’t pretend for one second that I appreciate this gift the way I should on a daily basis. I won’t pretend that there aren’t times I think, Man, two kids would have been so much easier. What I will say, though, is that I will be eternally grateful for the moments I laid in bed feeling like the biggest failure in the world (and there are a lot of them), because those are the moments that humbled me. The ones that built and are building me. Those are the moments I had to pray for strength and step outside my comfort zone. I can’t quit this gig. I can’t give up. I have to become more. I have to keep pushing myself. The stakes are too high. I have to keep running, knowing each day I’m a little more equipped for the marathon. Eventually, I will get to a finish line and all the inconveniences and all the mistakes made and lessons learned will amount to something so much bigger than me.

When our little surprise baby was three weeks old, she gave her mama another big scare. She came down with a pretty serious infection. What followed were months of uncertainty. Months of stress. Out little seven-pound gift from God once again brought me a reminder: Life is so precious and makes you no promises. When I look at her, the reflection is one of gratitude and appreciation for what God has entrusted to me.

I used to worry about what everyone thought of me. I used to strive for the façade of perfection, or even normalcy. My large family may look like an inconvenient mess to many, but I just don’t care anymore. God knew it would take six girls to get through my thick skull that His purpose is so much bigger than anyone’s opinion. Love is not some beautiful fairytale. Love is hard. Its fabric is flaws and mistakes, discipline and tears. It’s laying in bed at night feeling like you can’t do this anymore only to get up the next day and try again. That’s the gift my large, insane, beautiful family brought me. The gift of love.

Thoughts

Calling a Code Brown

March 23, 2017

Last week, I ran into my sweet new friend in the parking lot at preschool.

“Hey! Did you get a new car?” I asked her.
“No, I got in an accident.”
“Oh my gosh! Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because I’m not that person. I don’t like to be Debbie Downer.”
“But, I don’t care if you’re Debbie Downer. You got in an accident?”
“I’m just not having a good week. I screamed at the kids yesterday for no reason, and I’m cranky, and …”

I was watching a very familiar ball of yarn – one I personally keep in my nightstand, next to the melatonin and emergency candy bars – unravel.

She’d taken a mental health day from work, she went on to say, because things were just piling up. Between yelling at her boys and being annoyed with her husband and questioning all of those pesky major life questions, she was mentally depleted and in need of a mindless, indulgent Netflix binge. As I stood there, an unforgiving morning wind intruding in our conversation, I listened as this strong woman, who I deeply care for, talked herself down into a hole. It was a ritual I’d practiced myself and with almost all of my girlfriends, my sister, and my own mother. I waited for an opening.

“Listen, I know exactly how you feel. All moms feel that way. We all have those lows and days where we feel totally defeated, and it’s OK! I promise. I was standing with my toes to the edge last week. And now you’re up. We all just take turns.”

I think we can all agree it’s time to call it good on the charade. Being a mom in any capacity on any day that ends in “y” is a crazy occupation. Crazy! Anyone ambitious enough to think they’re going to climb that ladder has another thing comin’. Between the demand and the clients and the hours, mere survival is considered an above par performance on the job. There are two kinds of days: The days you have enough milk for their cereal, and the days you have to go out into the garage and grab a new gallon. The days you catch the bus, and the days you chase it down and get reprimanded by the driver. The days you make it to work without incident and the days you hit the bump and spill coffee down your white button-down blouse sleeve.

I can tell you, within 10 minutes of my children waking, what kind of day lies ahead of me. I can feel it. Like the air before a tornado – Mother Nature’s hot breath. But we don’t show the sweat on our faces, no. We smile and we press on and we push all the shit way down deep because we think it makes us less of a mom or less of a wife or less of a woman if we aren’t acing all the things, all the time. Well, guess what … that’s bullshit.

I always say, God makes ‘em cute so you don’t kill ‘em. In my case, he doubled up just to be sure and made them funny, too.

On one particularly trying morning, I slipped and let the truth serum seep in. When Cheri in my office asked how my morning was, I said, “Oh, I’m fine, thanks, other than the fact that I want to go on strike against my entire family for a few days.” A spark flickered in her eyes. “You know,” she said, like a kid at confession, “once when the kids were little, I told my husband he had to take them and I checked myself into a hotel for the weekend. I just watched TV, did a little shopping, ate.” We laughed like idiots, and I thought about how many other times I should have put out the invitation for other mothers to share their tales from the trenches.

In the parking lot that morning, if I squinted really hard, I could see the little armies waging battle inside my girlfriend. One side was fighting in the name of vulnerability and transparency and saying all of the depressing shit she was really feeling, while the opposition was willing to die on that hill for the sake of smoothing it all over with a laugh and a shrug. I’m familiar with that war, that struggle. How much to share, when to share it, how to sugarcoat it, which parts of the day’s failures I should censor for fear of how it will poison the perception of my otherwise “tidy” life.

We women, we are an efficient bunch. We are anticipatory. We are prepared and organized and concerned. We shoot ourselves in both feet day after day after day by getting everyone up and dressed and fed and out the door. We sign permission slips and send notes about doctor’s appointments and talk to the sitter at length about the quality and quantity of the baby’s bowel movements. We do it because somebody has to do it. But sometimes, being the somebody who does it just chews you up and spits you out.

In holistic nursing, there’s something called a Code Lavender. When the code is called for a caregiver, he or she is given a purple bracelet to wear, signifying they are in emotional distress. People might be a little kinder, a little more understanding, a little quicker to forgive minor oversights. Well, I’d say it’s time for moms to get a code of their own. Code Yellow, maybe? Code Brown? (Signifying we’re in deep shit.) That way, we can offer hugs, or cocktails, or comforting cuss words to our fellow comrades who are momentarily flailing.

If you have a perfect household with a perfect spouse and perfect children and everything is all Marie Kondo perfect everywhere, that is incredible. But, for the rest of us, it’s really easy to feel lonely sometimes. We think we’re alone in thinking our kids are assholes on occasion. We think we’re the only one who wants to stop for a drink after work on Thursdays instead of sitting in the carpool pickup line. We think there’s a conspiracy that our neighbor’s house is always suspiciously clean while ours is reproducing dust at a mind-boggling rate. We hide our secret Lucky Charms addiction and exchange kale salad recipes.

But the Code Brown could revolutionize our sorority.

For example – and this is entirely hypothetical – if I saw you pulling into the local watering hole on a Monday afternoon and we locked eyes, and you just happened to flash your poo-colored wristband, I might offer to pick up your kids and keep them busy for an hour, no questions asked. And you would return the favor two days later, when it was me sporting the bracelet. If you saw me carrying a snot-covered, entirely hysterical child out of the grocery store and glanced down to find a doo-doo-hued decoration south of my fingers, you would know to say a silent prayer for my sanity (and my child). And I would do the same for you that Friday when you replicated the scene in the McDonald’s playdome. It’s an emotional exchange program, rooted in support and understanding.

So, who’s in? Who’s comin’ with me here?

Let’s remove the stigma staining our struggles and choose, instead, to help a sister out. Friends, I do not mind having your children over to play for a bit, no strings or expectations attached. It does not inconvenience me to listen to your recount of just how irrational your daughter got over al dente noodles last night. No one can hear a mother’s cries and gripes like another mother. I say it can’t count as a true failure if you speak it aloud and set it free.

I’m here. And I know you are, too.

Kids

I wanna be like Spike

March 15, 2017

Women talk a lot about raising each other up. We make signs and applaud the movement to flex and demonstrate our strengths enough to generate a mighty wind, which we’ll use to power a greater good. We post about offering our shoulders for others to stand on, so they might finally be able to reach their dreams. But what does all of this really look like? What is the commonplace, everyday application for lifting up our sisters? Or our neighbors? Or our children?

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how abstract these concepts have been to me. I mean, the memes are great, and I love a good quote, but when you take the lipstick off, what does this particular type of empowerment look like? I wasn’t sure. Until last weekend, when I stopped looking for a grand demonstration and saw it, instead, in its purest presentation. In my daughter’s eyes.

I think I told you guys how Hank and I recently jeopardized our status as mediocre parents when, in an effort to save some of our Saturdays, we decided to sign Spikey up for the same basketball team as JoJo, even though she was two years younger and 4 inches shorter than her average teammate. When we started to question our decision, we resigned ourselves to the argument that it would build character and make her just that much better. Adversity, after all, breeds growth, right?

Each week, the kids would have 30 minutes of practice followed by a 30-minute game. Each little player was on the court for two of the four quarters. Well, on that very first week, Spike took an arm to the glasses, and that was all she wrote. She was still up for the practices, but she turned on the tears when the coaches tried to put her in for the game. “I don’t like people running at me!” she would say through pouty lips under a drippy nose.

The team had two coaches, a man and a woman. The latter, Coach Kasey, just had a way. She was young and athletic and a card-carrying mom herself. She pushed ever so gently by standing right behind them, supporting and cheerleading. She never forced Spike onto that court. Ever. And it was a good thing, too, because I did everything wrong. I pulled every ill-fated play from the playbook. I drenched her in compliments for minor tasks. I bribed. I threatened. I guilted. All laughable attempts that were destined to fall short. And why would they work? After so many “I believe in you”s and “Never say can’t”s, your parents just start to sound like the salesperson at a department store. “Oh my gosh, you can totally pull off snakeskin pleather pants!” It’s just pink noise.

Coach Kasey would check in on our girl and then jog over to the sideline and give me updates. “She said she’d try in the next quarter.” “She’s afraid of that girl on the other team.” “Her knee hurts.” “Her eye hurts.” “She forgot to wear underwear.” Always being a fellow mom to me, but a strong example to them. Positive and constructive and subtle.

At their second to last game, Kay came to watch the girls play. Spike had promised for weeks that she would play for Kay. In fact, she’d asked if her former caregiver would come later in the season so she could be at her very best. You have to really know Kay to appreciate the pressure here. She is a former volleyball and basketball coach and she gets a little … intense. She likes to yell and throw up ref signals, and I’m pretty certain it’s all involuntary. So, when it came time for Spike’s debut, and there wasn’t a lot of movement on the bench, I got a little worried.

But Kay sure as shit didn’t. She just tucked her coat under her arm and marched right over. Hank and I stood aside and looked on as Kay, Coach Kasey and the referee, a sweet older teenage gal, huddled around our hesitant five year old and coaxed her onto the court. We let the village raise our child. She played for two of the six minutes that quarter. Parents in the stands gave her enthusiastic thumbs up as she walked back over to her seat to grab her water bottle. When it was her turn again, she turned in a solid 45 seconds right at the end. I was thrilled.

The tiny taste of the action was enough to awaken the humble giant inside her. The entire week leading up to the final matchup, she told us she was going to play the entire game – all of the minutes Coach Kasey wanted her to play. She wasn’t going to be fast or yelling or waving her arms, she prefaced, but she was going to stay in and stay right there with her coach.

And you guys, she did.

She really did.

Just like the other kids, she played two full quarters, glued to the role model she admired so. Where Coach Kasey went, Spike went. When Coach Kasey told her to put her hands up, pass, run, she did it. Soon, she was running on ahead of Coach Kasey, as her knowing instructor hung back just enough to let her lead. Standing right behind her. Masterfully pushing her on.

And then, the Rudy moment. She shot the ball. Twice.

This adorable love nugget – who spent game after game sitting curled up, knees to her nose, arms crossed, peeking up over her legs with her sparkly purple glasses – that little bug stepped up and flung the ball toward the hoop with everything in her, from her toes to her fingertips. I’d be lying if I denied I got choked up over the whole thing, for the love of leggings!

After the final buzzer, Coach Kasey handed out awards. JoJo got “Best Listener” and Spike got “Team Spirit”. Might as well have been “Best Actress in a Lead Role” and “Best New Artist”. They raced over to show us their certificates and the shiny medals they were wearing with smiles to match. I bent down and gave JoJo a squeeze, then turned to Spike. “I am so proud of you, honey. You really did it.”

She asked if I’d take a picture for her. I followed after her wild brown ponytail, so much pride in her step, as she juggled her snacks and her accolades on a path to find Coach Kasey. As I watched their teacher crouch down in between them, I swallowed hard. This woman probably thought she was just volunteering to share her time and talent with her son’s team. What she actually did was positively alter the mental makeup of a stranger, my Spikey.

It’s truly awesome how people come into our lives and unexpectedly, through the most modest efforts, build new bridges on the map. They rewire parts of our confidence, our character, our backbone. That was what Coach Kasey did for my daughter. By staying with her, behind her, she ever-so-slightly reprogrammed the part of her heart where bravery resides.

As we walked to the car, Spikey’s mind couldn’t catch up with her mouth. “As I ran down and back and forth and I checked the ball and I shot the ball up there, I kept getting prouder and prouder and braver of myself!” She told us how badly she wanted to play basketball again, but only if Coach Kasey could be there. Hank and I exchanged knowing grins, heavy with the burdensome truths grownups carry around. Not a conversation for today. How could I tell those baby brown eyes that we would only be putting her in her appropriate age group going forward, and that made our paths crossing again unlikely?

As we made our way down the road, I heard mousey sniffles. I turned around and tears were rolling down her tender cheeks.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
“Are you hurt?” JoJo inquired.
“Are you tired?” I offered.
“Are you embarrassed you forgot underwear?” JoJo threw out there, which finally made her smile.
“I miss Coach Kasey,” she sobbed. And I felt stinging at the backs of my eyes.

Ugh! I hated that it clicked so late for my gentle lady. I hated that she’d made that connection and now it was over. It’s like when everyone tells you the fried egg sandwich at a local restaurant is to die for but you put off making the trip, and then you do and it is so amazing and then they take it off the menu the next week. The worst! I’ll be honest, I’m fine with getting our Saturdays back, but I would sit there seven days a week to see the pride I saw that morning on her face again. Those victories are so few and far between. And the first couple you get in life are the sweetest ones of all.

Coach Kasey packed up her own family that day and went back to her routine. And I’m willing to bet she has mommy moments of her own where, like all of us, she feels inadequate, disappointing, under-qualified. Maybe not, I’m guessing here. But I hope that Saturday she felt a small sense of what she gave to our middle chick. That she became my real-life illustration of what it means to lift people up. Small girls need grown women they can model themselves after. They will mimic what’s put in front of them, whether it’s good or it’s bad. I am so moved by the influence this woman, whose name I’d never heard 10 weeks ago, had on my ladybugs.

This is what I so desperately want for this place; A community that raises up our fellow citizens and our tinies and one that fosters a warm, safe morale where everyone feels empowered. I don’t know about you, but it’s felt like much of the world has been standing out in the cold for months now. It’s isolating living in a place so plagued by conspiracies and discontentment. But my hope for my children is that it’s different through their eyes. As I looked over and saw other parents clapping for my daughter’s air ball, I felt my heart swell. It was like taking a full breath for the first time this year. All the way in … and all the way out.

I don’t need my girls to be all star athletes, let’s not kid ourselves here. But I did see the invaluable struggle between self doubt and perseverance playing out for their tiny souls on that court. People talk about the parallels between sports and the real world all the time. Now I get it. And if our time in that microcosm has any correlation to the current state of things, perhaps there’s hope for this race after all.

Be someone’s Coach Kasey.

Raise someone up if you can.

Let them stand on your shoulders and offer your voice to make theirs louder.

When pure intentions and unbridled encouragement come together, hope has plenty of room to grow and spill over into all the dark corners and spaces where doubt likes to dwell.

Raise someone up.

Try That With Matt

To my brother on his 40th birthday

March 14, 2017

I know you don’t want this. I know you’ve been dreading this day for 19 years, at least. I know in your mind this milestone is marked with canes and can’ts and all the limitations you fear so much. But all those thoughts were born before we knew the truth. Now we know what 40 really looks like on you. It kind of looks like 21 driving up in a Honda Odyssey. It looks like flippy cup over nice carpet and gift bags crammed full of craft beer. And that’s really not so bad.

We know the important things haven’t changed and, if anything, they’ve gotten better. You’re still active. You’re still loved. You’re still one of the funniest people I know, even though sometimes I really don’t want to laugh at your stupid, sarcastic self.

From far away, 40 might have looked like Mike Tyson biting someone’s ear off, but up close, it’s more like Mike Tyson talking to his pigeons, right? You’re fine. Everything is just fine. I’m proud of you.

Celebrating your last four decades with friends and family last Friday was a treat. I always forget just how hilarious you are until I see you in your element – hosting a room full of people, telling a story in that voice that thunders over the group, and shakes the ground as you punctuate the important parts. Even though most of us have heard your bullshit before, it always feels new, hysterical, hard to believe. You’re theatrical and over the top and completely ridiculous. The people who know you best, know you’re best served up in this state. Showing off and workin’ your side hustle as a professional smartass.

You’ve been blessed with good friends who accept and humor you always, and that’s a gift you get to open every day. Not everyone is that lucky. Never stop sitting around with them and telling those stories. I mean, when someone knows the punchline involves you shitting your pants and they still let you get all the way to the end without blowing the whole thing, that’s generous.

I can’t wait to see what your 40s hold. More challenges, more stories, more love. I hope you choose to walk a little lighter and settle into all the best parts of who you are. I hope you don’t grow up and you don’t stop fighting to be the person you want to be. Meditate. Hike. Relax.

I can’t necessarily see into the future, but I’d say some of your best is yet to come. I can tell you one thing that I predict with 100-percent certainty though. One thing I will gosh dang guarantee you won’t be happening in this decade. I hope you read this next part extra carefully, old man: I will NEVER, ever stand up to sing karaoke with you again. You hog the mic and you don’t need me up there. There’s only room in that spotlight for one star, and it’s all you, brotha.

So, happy birthday and best wishes, you lovable son of a … Here’s to 40 more!