Thoughts

As I am your witness

July 12, 2017

Today, my husband turns 36. He would tell you he’s growing more salt than pepper and essentially falling apart, but I’d argue he’s never been better.

Of those 36 years Hank’s been on this earth, I have been around to see 16 of them. I have been his witness.

I have been his witness.

The idea kind of blows my mind. The idea that a force greater than ourselves made the assignment, pulled us together, paired us off and now we are the primary spectators for every breath, every major decision, every step (both forward and backward) in each other’s daily existence.

I first started thinking about it a few weeks ago. Spike and I were brushing our teeth and she looked over and noticed a spot on my shoulder blade.

“What’s that dot, Mama?” she asked.
“What dot? Where, honey?”
“That dot. Up there.”
“It’s a mole. She’s always had it.” Hank chimed in, passing through the bathroom on his way to the closet.

Huh. A mole. On my shoulder blade. I had no idea I had a mole on my shoulder blade, but it was just a plain, vanilla fact to my husband. Something he sees probably twice a day, everyday. A fire hydrant on his street.

It’s like the whole when-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods-and-nobody-hears-it thing. If I’d never seen that mole, would it have really even existed? It exists because my life witness sees it, and therefore, it is.

I proposed the mind-blowing concept to my better half in the car one evening. (Spoiler: He wasn’t as enthused.)

“Babe, ya know what I was thinking about?”
“What?”
“How we’re witnesses to each other’s lives. Like, you know I have a mole on my shoulder, and I didn’t know that.”
“Right …”
“And like, I know that you do this thing every night when you take your contacts out.”
“What?”
“You do. As you unscrew your contact case, you turn to the right and look at your eye in the mirror, and then turn your head to the left and look at your eye in the mirror and then dip your chin down and then take the right contact out, and then the left contact out.”
“OK, but that’s not necessarily interesting. That I do that.”
“I mean, it kind of is to me. And it’s the fact that I know you do it, right? Like, if I didn’t see you do it, no one would know you do it. And I don’t even think you realize you do it. It’s such an awesome responsibility … being witness to someone’s life.”

Then he veered off the path and started talking about perceived reality and sounding really smart and the air made fart noises as it escaped rapidly from my mental tires.

But as the days went by, I just started thinking about it more. And how our parents are our witnesses for the beginning of our lives, and then our close friends kind of step into that role, and then our partner kind of takes over from there. How fascinating would it be to have these groups of people write the appropriate chapters of your life story, from their perspectives, when they were all up in there?

Right now, without consciously realizing it, I am documenting my daughters’ lives. I’m doing the same for their father. I know their habits, their mannerisms, their missteps, their victories, their sensitivities. I know the exact moment JoJo is going to put her fingers in her mouth to suck on them and can recount both of the evenings she got stitches, in her eyebrow and chin respectfully. I know that Spike has my hands and that her breath is super hot in the mornings. I know that Sloppy Joan’s Xiphoid process, the tiny bone between her ribs, sticks out freaky far and that she rode in the back of an ambulance on my lap, wearing nothing but a diaper, at 2 o’clock in the morning to be treated for RSV. If you had the time and the interest, I could tell you every tiny detail. It’s woven into the fabric of my soul.

Their bodies. Their voices. Their natural tendencies. I carry them all.

But I also know I won’t carry them forever. Pieces of them, sure, but not the bulk like I do now. Not all the good stuff.

Sometimes my parents tell stories about things I did as a little girl, and it feels fabricated. Or foggy at best. Like maybe it lives in my mind somewhere, but nowhere convenient or close enough to easily access the memory. But as they tell it, I can see it. I’m reliving part of my life through them. Through their eyes, their recollection. Those were moments they picked up and held onto so one day I could know they happened. They created the first scrapbook of my existence, and it’s fun to bring it out sometimes and flip through the pages.

When I get together with girlfriends and we carry on about all the stupid shit we did in high school or college, it’s often the same. I vaguely recall smoking cigarettes out of my bedroom window, listening to Celine Dion. I can kind of remember falling down a stack of stages at the youth dance club, coming to rest at the feet of a circle of guys, but it’s all spotty at best. As they offer up scraps of their own memories, I can typically piece it all together. The names. The places. The ridiculous outfits. They were the audience for the second scene in my play. And you bet your sweet ass we go right back there when the kids are in bed and the cocktails are cold.

And then there’s Hank. We thought we were such grownups when we met. We didn’t date very long before we pushed all the chips into the pot and decided this thing was probably going to stick. I immersed myself in his life in a way I’d never done with anyone before. Had I known all the time I would have to absorb every detail of him, I might not have been so insistent, so eager. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to commit this man to my memory. We’ve gone on beautiful trips, and had revealing conversations and laughed and cried. Often, it was just the two of us. The authors, actors and audience to our personal love story.

And now, 16 years later, on his 36th birthday, I find myself marveling at my permanent role as a witness to his life. And the gift of being witness to our three beautiful babies’ lives. And the gift of looking back on all the people – my parents, my girlfriends, my husband – who’ve been witness to my life. Ultimately, everyone needs someone who knows that they cough when they eat ice cream and yawn every time they say goodbye to their mom on the phone. And not just know those things. But actually give a shit, too.

This post is a little convoluted, I’ll admit. It reads a bit like a 3am shroom trip, but still, it amazes me. I guess you just never know where a mole is gonna take you.

Pages

Your summer reading (or listening) list

June 30, 2017

Four years ago I made a promise to myself. No longer would I be the girl at the party just nodding politely when the conversation turned to books and the like. No longer would I only pretend to be well-versed in trending literature while others rejoiced in the entertaining pages of the latest best seller. The Gone Girls and the Hunger Games and the 50 Shades of Sex Reading would elude me no more.

There was just one little problem … time. And the fact that I didn’t have any. And I was even one child down at the time!

It was then I discovered the true beauty of the audiobook. All the pleasure of reading without the pressure of carving out additional down time. I play those puppies while I’m in my car and make my commute, long or short, a delicious dose of indulgent me time.

Before you get all Audible crazy, there are a few risks you should be aware of. First, the narrator has an unfortunate amount of clout in this situation. A bad reader can ruin a perfectly acceptable book. I once suffered through an entire series (cough, cough, The Mazerunner) – three books – with a gentleman whose lisp made me daydream about a fictional man with a 3-year-old’s face. Conversely, I’ve been carried away to Australia, England and the inner depths of the soul by masterful, enchanting voices, too. It’s a roll of the dice.

Second, you still have an obligation to not drive like an asshole. I’ve had books both mesmerize and infuriate me while I was behind the wheel. I finished Gone Girl going 70 mph down the highway. That’s living dangerously, my friends.

These books are some of my favorites ever, of all time. Almost all of them are available on audiobook, but the good old fashioned bound versions are just as worthy of your time. I hope this summer is filled with stories that move you, change you and keep you entertained.

FICTION FAVES

The Shack by William Paul Young

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

Crazy Rich Asians AND China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Looking for Alaska by John Green

The Walk Series by Richard Paul Evans

TRUTH TELLERS

Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed AND Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton

Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

Rising Strong AND Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

For the Love by Jen Hatmaker

Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

10% Happier by Dan Harris

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

FOR SHITS AND GIGGLES

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Yes, Please! by Amy Poehler

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

When I become obsessed with a book …
Want to read more about some of these beauties? Check out these posts from the past:

Falling Hard for Amy Poehler
10% Happier Ain’t Too Bad
Go Get You Some Big Magic
Little JoJo and the Case of the First Grade Burdens
Working on my Core
Warrior in Training

Thoughts

Lying down with grief

June 24, 2017

Grief is your receipt that proves you loved. That you paid the price. – Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior 

This is a difficult post for me to write and likely for you to read, but writing is my therapy and this blog is my couch. You can either come in and grab a tissue or catch me at the next session. No hard feelings.

Wednesday morning, at 11:05, my Grandma Marge marched boldly into heaven.

She lived her life honestly and simply. Her possessions were few but all treasured. She walked this earth with red, fiery curls, long, killer legs and few apologies for her opinions. She was the definition of a matriarch, always guiding her tribe toward truth and the simplest, smartest answer. She spoke from her heart and accepted all who came through her door. She only asked that you “serve yourself”. My life was forever changed by her light and her love.

I never met my mom’s mom. I lost my dad’s mom when I was fairly young, so when Hank and I started dating and he told me he still had all of his grandparents, I was over the moon. And then I met her, Grandma Marge, and I went over the sun, too. She was so welcoming, so accepting so familiar. It healed a part of me I didn’t realize was so tender. She slipped right into that painful void and stoked a very specific joy for me.

I remember when Hank and I were engaged and everyone on the planet had an opinion about where and how we should get married. I felt overwhelmed and, admittedly, like I was being swallowed up by the ceremony of it all. Sensing my stress, Grandma held me back one day at a family gathering, looked me in my eyes and said, “You hold onto your convictions, doll.”

That was just something she would say. She had perfected the delivery of very sharp directives that somehow didn’t feel offensive, I think because she diluted the bite of the words in concern for your best interests. It felt like gospel … a wise woman’s suggestions, rather than a command to change direction. She was a sincere sounding board, an unfeigned confidant, and sometimes, a lighthouse. She lived on a lake with Hank’s Grandpa Butch, and before we had three kids, before everything changed for her and for us, we used to stay up late and have these long, revealing talks on the deck by the water. She always had a question or a story or a scrap of advice to punctuate the end of my sentences.

Five years ago, when we found out she was sick, it felt impossible. It felt like tomorrow’s worry. She would be the first person to beat it. She even said she would be. And she knew everything! There was no way this badass great grandmother could be stopped by some freak illness. She was bigger than that, stronger than that, invincible.

But last Friday I got the call I’d been dreading for more than a year. Grandma had taken a turn for the worse. We needed to come up that night. I was a sobbing, snotty, hysterical mess. Hank was calm, understanding. He didn’t push. He let me come to the decision on my own. And together, we drove 40 minutes to say goodbye to the woman we loved so much.

She was laying in her bed when we walked in. I hesitated for a minute and then felt a powerful pull toward her. I leaned down, put my head on her shoulder and sobbed in her ear.

“Don’t do that, honey. You’re so pretty when you smile,” she said.
“I just love you,” I cried.
“I know, honey, I love you, too. Now, you take care of those little girls, and my grandson and my daughter.”
“I will, I promise.”
“You two are going to make it,” she said, “but it won’t always be easy.”
I stood up to wipe my face and look at her in the eyes. We held hands so tight. Tighter than I’ve ever held hands with anyone with a grip that got away from me. It was this beautiful, tense, brutal energy, shared for what felt like a blink and an eternity at once.

“Thank you for being my grandma,” I strained.
“It was my pleasure. We wouldn’t have kept you around if we didn’t like ya.”
I hugged her again. The tightest embrace I could give her without breaking her fragile frame.

There’s a reason I’m sharing this …

This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. If you’ve read any of Glennon Doyle’s work or seen her speak live, you’ve heard her talk about leaning into pain. How the easy buttons are what we should be afraid of, not our feelings. But I love easy buttons when it comes to death. I’ve never been in a position where I was able to say goodbye, nor have I ever been a person who believed she could handle such a thing. I’ve never really looked that kind of loss in the eyes and worked through it in any kind of confrontational way. But, you guys, I’m so glad I did. It was a gift sweeter than I ever could have imagined.

I will never forget those honest, precious minutes with Grandma Marge. I will never forget that hug, her hand in my hand. I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I hadn’t gone. It gave me comfort, cruel as the conditions were. But it hurt, too. It hurt in the way profound loss does; pounding head, lurching stomach, heavy, quick heartbeats. All of these things are the going price of one last hug, one last talk, one last memory of her eyes and her voice and her stories. I have always resisted that kind of hurt, but this time, I laid down with it, and that gives me some peace.

She held on through Father’s Day. She made it to and through her anniversary. She would do that. She would fight with everything she had to spare the people she loved. She would have fought like that forever if she could. But instead, the great beyond was blessed with one of the most amazing souls I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

And now we’re trying to come alongside our babies and help them lean into their pain. They don’t want to go to the calling hours or the funeral. It frightens them, and I think that’s OK. Tonight we are having a Great Grandma Marge Party. We’re going to bake sweets, because Great Grandma loved dessert. And we’re going to talk about all of our favorite things she said and did and all the kindness she had in her heart.

We’re choosing not to remember Grandma Marge with oxygen on her face and a bed in her living room and a breathless desperation in her tone. I, personally, will remember things like this, instead, and smile. I’m told I’m prettier when I smile …

♥ She had the walkin’ farts. They’d just pop out when she waltzed around the kitchen and startle her and everyone in the room.

♥ She always started sentences with, “I got so tickled …” or “I had to laugh …”.

♥ She would stay up until 2 o’clock in the morning playing euchre and sipping coffee with powdered creamer. Then she’d sleep in her recliner to make sure she didn’t miss anything.

♥ One night, Grandma Marge and I were sitting up chatting while the boys went fishing, and I asked her what was the happiest day of her life. And she told me that one time, her and Butch (Hank’s grandpa) were driving in the country and he pulled over and made her a bouquet of flowers from a field. That was her happiest day.

♥ Spike’s middle name is Margery, after Grandma Marge, a fact which Grandma made known by always using her full name when she introduced her to strangers.

♥ As she gave away her treasures, one by one, and handed out her final instructions to her grandchildren over the weeks as she deteriorated, she cautioned each of them. “Take care of this, or I’ll come back and haunt ya!” or “Keep your nose clean. I mean it. Or I’ll come back and haunt ya!” Just awesome. .

♥ She had the best laugh.

♥ Nobody could give Hank’s Grandpa Butch shit like Grandma Marge could. And that man deserves to get some shit. He’s a pistol.

♥ When she was little, she shot a hole through the tip of her boot trying to climb a fence while holding a shotgun. Luckily, they were her brother’s shoes so they were extra big. The bullet missed her toe.

♥ She was the calm conductor of a huge, loud, tenacious family, and the result of her efforts is a masterful display of unyielding love, indestructible support and everlasting faith. It’s the house she built. It’s her legacy. It’s beautiful.

Thoughts

Why I just can’t stop getting baked

June 15, 2017

This week had all the nauseating makings of what’s becoming a typical 7-day span in our world; a giant building fire, a plethora of senseless shootings, a serious Bachelor in Paradise scandal, investigations and hearings and lies and denials and a bunch of other devastating tragedies that made my emotional organs ache. If you came here looking for deep commentary on the dark side of the universe, this ain’t it. This, my bros and beauties, is not a hard-hitting piece of journalism, because, quite frankly, I just don’t have that in me. It’s not about anything cruel or executive or despicable or discriminatory or inhumane. Still, it is about something that’s been on my heart as of late, and so I feel compelled to address it here.

Guys, I am 120 thousand percent addicted to The Great British Baking Show on PBS.

Have you seen it? Tell me you’ve seen it. If not, you need to at least entertain the idea of opening a soft little spot in your life and letting it crawl right in.

Should you prefer to take your television in buttery binge form, as I do, there are three complete seasons on Netflix and the fourth season is underway now on PBS. I’ll give you details, but all you really need to know is that this sugary little show has all of the ingredients of an unforgettable meal. It’s mesmerizing. Me and my little chicks will settle into a spot and look on in awe as these completely endearing foreigners, with their imperfect teeth and buffet of awesome accents, torch and pipe and crouch on the floor to watch their confections brown in the oven.

The premise is nothing groundbreaking. Each weekend, as many as a dozen amateur bakers come to this pimped out tent on some beautiful farm somewhere in, I don’t know … I guess Britain? No, that’s not right. It’s Berkshire. Berkshire’s the place. Anyway, over the course of the weekend, they complete three challenges: a signature challenge, a technical challenge and a showstopper. By Sunday’s end, we have a Star Baker, and we have the person whose flavors didn’t jive or their bread was raw or their house made of gingerbread collapsed and they must, unfortunately, be eliminated.

All their efforts in hopes of exciting Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. Mary is this stylish old bag of class who is apparently a baking legend across the pond. She’s published more than 70 cookbooks and been recognized by the Queen. Paul Hollywood is a silver fox with 500 expressions conveyed entirely through his eyebrows. He’s one of the UK’s leading artisan bakers – the Billy Crocker of Berkshire and beyond – and, while he tries to be a badass, he’s really a teddy bear. A handshake from Paul is the equivalent of Johnny Carson asking a comedian to come over to the couch after a standup set.

The emcees, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, offer just enough British humor to keep things light. They step in to bring the bakers off the ledge when their Baked Alaskas melt into a puddle or the top tier of their wedding cake crumbles. When a contestant cries, which happens kind of a lot, they deliver a soothing perspective that makes it all better.

As the episodes pass, I just fall more and more in love with the subtle charm of the personalities and language and the way Paul fingers loaves of bread with such authority. It’s the way they call cakes “sponges”, and cookies “biscuits”, and pronounce basil with a short “a” instead of a long one. I watch intently as bread proofs. How is that exciting? I don’t know! I can’t answer it honestly.

I knew my condition was contagious when I overheard JoJo and Spike playing kitchen in their bubble bath the other night. “Spikey, your flavors just burst off my tongue! You are this week’s Star Baker.” They gradually went from hearing it in the background, to being fully absorbed. Especially my JoJo, who now carries a sketchpad to draw cakes and souffles. She asked me the other day if we could go on TGBBS as a team … you know, since she’s not allowed to use the oven by herself.

I can hardly keep up with JoJo’s newfound thirst for culinary knowledge. I am not a baker. I can cook up a dinner like any desperate housewife, but kneading and ramekins just aren’t my jam. This brings me to the intersection where the Pinterest phenomenon meets my new obsession, this show. I’m lusting after a skill I will never possess or pursue, just like 85 percent of my pins. I’m never going to make an arlette or a windtorte or a Charlotte Royale. But I’m sure as shit gonna watch other people try.

So what is the appeal of a show where you watch people sweat and stress over plates of beautiful foods that you will a) never taste and b) never recreate at home? It might go under another name for you – Chopped, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Chef’s Table, whatever – it’s all the same concept. We’re using two senses (sight and sound) to take in something that typically only delivers pleasure when tied to two totally different senses (smell and taste). It’s all one big olfactory, tastebud tease, and I question my willingness to play along.

And yet, each night, when the dinner is dished and cleared and the training miles are logged and the freelance is filed away, I curl up and let Netflix take me to the tent. I mean, I think there’s something to the microcosm you find if you look past the sugar and spice.

Sometimes shit falls apart.
There are times in life when your meringue is stiff and fluffy, and others when it’s deflated and chewy. But regardless, you have to “proceed with confidence” as my old manager would say. You have to present your efforts with a smile and a smidge of pride, even if it looks like a pile of dirt. Crying over curdled custard does good for no one.

Patience pays off.
There’s the suspense of the bake – things take time, they can’t be rushed. The closer you watch it, the more you agonize over the end result, the longer and more torturous it feels. There’s a thrill in that moment when the timer goes off and the work is done. Just give things time to rise up.

Sometimes you gotta stick your neck out.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I love when a contestant presents their concept and it’s something that seems crazy, like apple and tarragon (this constitutes crazy by PBS standards), and Paul raises his skeptic eyebrows at the poor soul. But then, more often than not, Mary takes a forkful of the final dish and declares it, “positively scrummy” and the audience rejoices with the relieved baker. Sometimes you just gotta hang your dough balls out there.

Being competitive doesn’t have to mean being a turd.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing or maybe it’s a casting thing, but the bakers on TGBBS are just the greatest people. They’re humble and helpful and they send every contestant voted off away with a group hug. There is no sabotage or trash talk or conspiracy. Honestly, in three seasons the closest thing I’ve seen to a dick move is when one baker accidentally grabbed another baker’s meringue out of the fridge and used it. And then she cried and gave him all the credit, as deserved. That’s it! They’re too focused on their own work and their own goals to worry about screwing with anyone else. And isn’t that how it should be? We’re all ultimately in the same boat here. If everyone just focused on being the best version of themselves, on baking the most beautiful, delicious cake possible, there would be enough slices to pass around. The TV villain is tired. Give me more confidence coupled with a dash of grace, and I’ll watch all day.

With a great sadness for the seasons behind me, I feel like I’m at a place where I can reflect a bit. My guess is I fell so hard for Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood and their sweet little tent in Berkshire because it’s an emotional refuge. It’s a place to hide for an hour while everything and everyone else in my world is busy going entirely batshit crazy. And this post, I suppose, is my invitation for you, too, to run away for a little awhile. To come lose yourself in proofing baguettes and trifle layers and statues made of biscuits. You have to admit … it’s an appetizing prospect. Or rather,”positively scrummy.”

Thoughts

Confession: I gave bad advice to bachelors

June 9, 2017

In 2003, Hank and I were just babies. I was a journalism student who smoked a pack of Camels a day and wore black stretchy pants with one-shoulder tank tops when I wanted to be fancy. He was a frat guy who drank Early Times with a splash of Coke and grew lawn grass in a pot as a conversation piece.

At the seasoned age of 20, through a series of events erased by Bacardi and time, I ended up connecting with the editor of the newspaper at Hank’s all-male school. It was a perfect storm, really. I was a card-carrying member of the cult of Sex and the City and they were thirsty for a female perspective. Thus, a weekly advice/editorial column, called From the Hip, was born.

I had the purest intentions, I swear. Hand over my heart, I believed I was giving them legit advice. I aspired to be a guiding light for their liaisons, both committed and casual. They were my Anthony Michael Halls, and I was their Carrie Bradshaw, and together we were going to revolutionize the way men and women – who drank a lot and hooked up – communicated with each other. I exposed all of the sores and issues on the underbelly of the twenty-something dating scene, often shoplifting stories from my roommates’ love lives, which were far more exciting than my own.

The men of the campus gradually started seeking me out. Once adequately liquored up, guys would come up to me at Tommy’s, the townie bar, and scream their questions in my ear over Sublime and Tom Petty. I’d walk by them at parties and they would point and sloppily gush as they realized, “Hey! You’re that girl in the paper!” Then they’d be on to a sweet piece of ass who wouldn’t exploit their misfortunes for a spot in the “Stuff” section. Professors and students debated my opinions in class and it didn’t always fall in my favor, which bewildered me. Until recently.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an old friend about writing aspirations and the good ole’ days and all the things you cover with the dear ones, and she mentioned my old column. I hadn’t thought of those articles in years. I hadn’t read them since college. So, I went home, did some Googling, and soon found myself sitting inside the mind of my 20-year-old self. And let me tell you, it was scary in there. Nothing was how I remembered it. It was like finding your childhood dollhouse and realizing just how tiny the furniture was. The writing was terrible, the perspective was all wrong and the topics were predictably tacky.

Aren’t these just the cutest things you’ve ever seen? I mean … precious. And naive AF. Sure, there might be some little nuggets that hold up, but overall, the work and the arguments are mediocre at best. My 34-year-old self realized I had done a massive disservice to the men at that college, and their partners. I took a platform primed with potential for enlightenment and healthy dialogue and squandered it on topics like strip clubs and clingy exes.

The view from the woman behind this keyboard – now 14 years of living, 10 years of marriage, and 3 children the wiser – is much different. It’s messier. Happier. More Claire Dunphy than Carrie.

Honestly, I’m confident the voice of Courtney 2017 wouldn’t have really resonated with the men of 2003, or the 20-something men of 2017 for that matter. But you know what, screw it! Here’s to trying to right what’s wrong …

FROM THE HIP
What real women really want

By Courtney Leach

First, gentlemen, I must apologize for casually disrespecting the complex expedition we endure to establish strong relationships in the unsophisticated fashion that I did. The idea that the intricacies of one person dedicating their mind, body and soul to another person for any period of time could be simplified or summarized in 800-word musings was an ignorant, albeit well-intentioned, endeavor.

It has taken me 16 years of being with the same man, decades of listening to my dear friends and a lot of great books and self reflection to realize that my opinions, or anyone else’s for that matter, are just that, opinions. They are beads representing other people’s experiences we string on a necklace and wear on the battlefield of our own relationships. They are tools in the shed, but each landscape is different. There is no magical salve for your relationship pain points, because each partnership is unique and requires its own set of care instructions. Instructions you come to on the other side of steep mountains and colorful emotional bruises.

But since this stage is meant for advice, I might have a little bit left in my back pocket. A few beads to string on your necklace.

You’re in college now, and what I offer you is a glimpse into your future. A telescope for the not-so-distant journey ahead. My sincere wish for each of you is that you find that person who pours into your heart and fills in every gap, every hole. When fate reveals your other half and truest equal, it’s an unimaginable gift. Recognize the beauty in that and celebrate it every day, with both minor and magnificent gestures. Everyone’s love language is acknowledgement. Everyone needs to feel appreciated. Including your partner. Don’t forget that when things get hectic.

I can tell you that, in my experience, the best unions are rooted in respect, fed with thoughtful exchanges and watered with laughter. There will be so many hard moments and gut-wrenching decisions to be made in the years ahead; Unfathomable losses and love so intense it frightens you to death. The sooner you learn to dance in the light and joyful reprieves, the fuller your heart will be. Don’t take life so seriously. There’s enough weight to carry between the two of you as it is.

Understand that the woman you love will feel like a stranger in her own skin at some, or many, points in your life together. Maybe it’s a result of pregnancy and the subsequent nursing and hormone changes that accompany that process. Maybe it’s a change in metabolism or motivation or her ability to cope with the suffocating stress of keeping a household running. Whatever the cause, the body she has now, will not be the body she has always. And she will wrestle with that. Be understanding of this gradual evolution. Remember what came with those curves; your son, your daughter, a warm meal at the family table, a soul standing and aching next to you in the hardest of times. You, too, will likely change. Just use it as an excuse to go for a walk together.

Contrary to what your current stage of life would have you believe, sometimes being the strongest man, means staying completely silent, unless your words can guarantee progress or healing. It requires you to hold your tongue when the sharp organ is dripping in toxic antagonism, and reserve your words for constructive conversation instead. Words can build bridges between torn hearts, but they burn them just as quickly. Be thoughtful with the woman and the people you love.

If you’re angry, go lift some weights. Move boxes around in the garage. Go for a run. Just go. The water tastes like shit when you draw from an indignant well. Just be sure to circle back when your mind has cleared. Progress is the pup born of honesty and communication.

Always have your partner’s back. Even when she is wrong. She probably knows deep down that she is. (If she is.)

Life is about to pull a big fast one on you and pick up its pace. It goes way too quickly to argue about who’s going to come to your wedding, or get the groceries, or fold the laundry, or take the car in for an oil change. Don’t burn these sweet minutes on such inconsequential disputes. With a full-time job and active kids and a thousand responsibilities you can’t even imagine right now, you’ll come to see your time together as an extravagance. Be an observer of your partner’s struggles and the load she carries. Watch for opportunities to pitch in and do it, unprompted. Make the ride a little easier so you can both enjoy the music on the radio and the sights as you speed along. She isn’t the only one who can pack the sandwiches. And, I’m tellin’ ya, a basket of folded laundry at the hands of her spouse, is a woman’s greatest aphrodisiac.

When in doubt, come back to the love. You will always think that you are right. And she will always think that she is right. And both of you will be accurate. But there is nothing more important than the magnetic, authentic admiration you feel for the soul that climbs in bed next to you at night. Lose that perspective, and you’re screwed.

To assume it will be perfect is to set yourself up for a life of disappointment. It’s a fool’s vision. You have to go all in. You have to do the work. You have to get into your bathing suit and embrace the heat when it all goes to hell in a handbasket. The bruises and bumps and hiccups are perfectly human, and they will subside with time and care. And, as you grow together, as a couple, you learn when to warn each other to duck and come out less scathed. In the end, 98 percent of your disagreements are trivial, and the best things often come from the brutal 2 percent that’s left over.

In the end, being a good man is a matter of character. It’s about supporting your partner’s dreams and setting some of your own as well. Hold onto who you want to be, and make a point to validate the goals of the person across the table, too. Put yourself in her shoes, even when that badass, exhausted woman is wearing those pointy uncomfortable ones. Pitch in so she doesn’t feel alone, always. Practice empathy, loyalty, compromise and humility.

Remember that you are not perfect. Neither is she. You are two flawed creatures trying to build a burrow where you can create a life of contentment. Don’t overthink it. Just bring it back to love. If you always come back to the love, you’ll do just fine, young man. (Well, that and pare your morning shit back from 45 minutes to a more acceptable 15, um kay?)

Thoughts

Let me float something by you

June 1, 2017

When I close my eyes as tight as I can, or stand in a completely black room, I see things. Not like psychedelic cats blowing smoke rings or anything, but like moving streams of light and twinkling dots of color. Now, this could get weird because I don’t know if that’s normal for everyone, but it’s normal for me. (At this point, you’re either nodding with your eyebrows raised encouragingly and feeling validated in some way, or making a confused crinkly face that I’m glad I can’t actually see or I’d feel too judged to continue. I understand it could be caused by my special eyes.)

I see these lines and colors when I meditate, when I go to bed in a hotel room with the curtains drawn and when I sit in a closet waiting for a little pair of hands to turn the doorknob and seek me out … finally. And, as I discovered, I see the equivalent of the Northern Lights behind my eyelids when I float in a pod of concentrated salt water.

I know, I know … This post is stupid scattered to this point. I’m seeing things in the dark, I’m submerged in salt water. There’s a lot going on here. Keep following the needle, I’m about to get to a point.

My brother had been raving about float tanks for months. Because I struggle with claustrophobia and the general notion of taking time for myself, let alone a water nap, I politely brushed him aside. Plus, it just seemed weird; like taking a swim in a baby whale’s old bath water or something. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. And yet, he persisted.

For Christmas, Matt gave Hank and I three passes for one-hour floats. Well, hell! I thought. Why not? There’s nothing like a freebie to convince a stubborn skeptic. So, I scheduled a session for 7 o’clock on a Monday night, since they’re typically uneventful at our house.*

The gentleman who runs the place was waiting at the front desk when I pulled up. He gave me the instructions: 1) Go to the bathroom, even if you don’t think you have to go (no Code Browns in the pod). 2) Change into your swim or birthday suit. 3) Shower, using body wash, shampoo and conditioner. 4) Ball up your wax earplugs and drop em in your ear holes. And 5) Climb into the tank, turn off the light and turn on the tunes (a massage-style relaxation playlist.) You can leave the light on if you prefer, but because it was my first time and I lose my shit in confined spaces, the owner recommended lights out, which I think was a game changer.

Here’s how it went …

7:05 p.m.
All I could think about was the hour ahead of me. How was I going to just float in a tub of dark gray water for 55 more minutes? I was sure I was going to freak out. It was inevitable.

7:15 p.m.
This was when my list-making started, which is typical for me in any sort of silence, meditation or pre-slumber space. The girls had field trips that week. I really needed to get some art up on the walls in the living room. We were out of ketchup. My right armpit felt itchy.

7:20 p.m.
A drop of saltwater dropped on my forehead, startling me for a second. I tensed my stomach and tried to force my butt down to the bottom of the tank. I accidentally used my fingertip to remove it – rookie mistake. Regret. Immediate regret. I reached out and grabbed the folded washcloth on the table just outside of the pod and dabbed the stinging corners of my eyeballs. Once calm was restored, I succumb again to the weightlessness.

7:25 p.m.
The reality of the dark hit me and I started to think about death, as I often do (apologies for the shift to the morbid tone here). It’s true, I’m generally afraid of death. And I often obsess over the undeniable uncertainty of how things end for us, but in my defense, my deep thoughts on this occasion were likely a result of a podcast I had just listened to about how our souls are so much bigger than our bodies and are always connected to our great loves. I started thinking about what it would be like if death was eternal blackness with the presence of thought, and how terrible yet comforting that idea was. These thoughts are slippery for me, often dragging me down rabbit holes I’d rather leave unexplored. Nevertheless, here they were. I was trapped inside a giant white plastic prison, hovering in a pool of my own fears. Submerged in them. Forced to swim with them.

7:40 p.m.
I woke up after a very brief but sweet snooze. Apparently, being scared shitless makes me sleepy. Everything shifted for me here.

7:45 p.m.
I gently but playfully pushed my body around in the pod. I waited until the tips of my toes hit the bottom and used as little effort as possible to push myself up until my fingertips touched the top of the pod. I’d shift my weight side to side to feel my slippery, freshly conditioned hair settle around my shoulders like affectionate baby eels.

7:50 p.m.
I felt a consuming peace. I was seeing streams of white light dancing behind my eyelids and it reminded me of God and busy angels. I felt so connected to the calmest version of myself, and she’s been quite the stranger lately. I love when she comes to visit. She has no worry, no sense of urgency, no self-loathing. This, I thought, is what meditation must feel like if you make it past the first 10 minutes. I was atmospheric, ethereal, near sedation.

8 p.m.
The light clicked back on and a robotic woman’s voice filled the pod. “We hope. You enjoyed. Your float.” I lifted the lid, beaded with salted condensation, and reached again for the washcloth to tuck my eyes away from the bite of the mineral.

I climbed out and went back into the shower, as instructed. I washed my hair and body, which was slick with a film of fabricated ocean water and sleep. My clothing clung obnoxiously as I tried to slide into the shirt and pants I’d packed. Normally, I’d be irritated. I wasn’t.

I emerged from the room like a flu patient after a 48-hour nap. The tranquilizer dart had just been removed from my backside and I just wanted to keep a good thing going and go get in my bed. I felt beautifully depleted, emotionally drained.

The owner and I chatted for a bit. “Mind or body?” he asked. In his experience, some people notice more of a physical response to the tank, and others more of a mental response. I don’t have gout. My back isn’t too bad. And my pains seem to be reasonable for a gal of my certain age. So, for me, it was almost entirely a treatment for mental chaos and fatigue. “Oh gosh, mind!” I answered without hesitating.

The float granted me a temporary buoyancy for my abused, slouchy body and my tired, frantic brain. The optic light show in the infinite darkness and the subtle sounds of splashes as I glided across the water washed away my worry for a few hours. I came out a convert, a believer, an enthusiastic float-pusher. I don’t know what you’ll see when you close your eyes, but for me, it was serenity. I skimmed the top of the water and took home a doggie bag of tranquility, a scarcity for me and most.

I never felt trapped or claustrophobic. I never felt like I was going to drown. But there was one negative side effect – I find myself telling people the exact thing my brother told me for months. Despite my best efforts here, “I can’t explain it. You just have to try it.” Go find yourself in a float.

*This is not a sponsored post. I am not that big of a deal.

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