I am standing in front of the bathroom counter in my grandmother's house. It is 6 am Sunday morning, and her tiny house is full of quiet people - a neighbor at the door, a hospice nurse, my great aunt and uncle, my mother and aunt, my grandmother's best friend and her daughters, and my own sisters. My grandmother has just died. I am standing in the bathroom, and I am looking at her tray of make up. It will all be thrown away, now; it's going to be picked through and what no one wants will go into a trash bag and out to her curb. This is also true of her clothes, all hung up, all very neat, and her little shoes, some of which look brand new to me beside her bed, where I've been sleeping, as her hospice bed has been set up in her living room.
I can hear my great aunt and aunts in the kitchen. "Does anyone take Adavain? Kristy, isn't this the same blood pressure pill you take?" "Careful," my sister says, "check the dosage and make sure it's the same." "Baby aspirin? Lauren - you take that." These women speak just like my grandmother, a cajun softness that I want to remember always. They say, "mah bay-bees" when they talk to my sisters and I, the babies, who are all 30+.
We kept vigil with my grandmother all weekend. We sifted through her boxes of old pictures, read all the yearbooks she kept from Marksville High School, early 1950s. She had a bright, open smile and big, brown eyes. We compare pics of ourselves and our own children with the sepia people in Gran's tupperware full of old pictures, and we are all there in the old faces. I am Essie, Lauren is Uncle Larry's face again, and Steph looks so much like Joyce. We watch the LSU game, and my grandmother stirs a tiny bit at the sound of the band, breathing shallow breaths now, and not talking anymore. When I arrived on Friday, she knew me, and we talked about her short hair, growing in dark after chemo, and her painted pink nails. By Saturday, her hands were purpled and she was not speaking much anymore, but single words. We sit around her with coffee, talking to her as if she will respond. Early Saturday afternoon, Gran asks my aunt for coffee, and my aunt drops cooled coffee into her mouth with a medicine dropper. Miss Sherry remarks, "You so Cajun, Joyce," and we all laugh, but not Gran.
This is a corporeal work of mercy, sitting beside the dying. It is sad and heavy, hot like a blanket around your shoulders when you have a fever. I want to get out. My sisters feel the same, so we pick through the banana pudding brought by a neighbor, decide we are hungry and head into town. We head to the Hypolite-Bordelon house, the house built by our ancestor, a Louisiana pioneer in the late 1700s. The house is closed up. We call the number on the sign to request a tour, but the number is disconnected. Because we are kin, my boldest sister feels like it will be just fine to let ourselves in, if we can find a way. I suggest this, actually, and then I collect a bench from the front porch, lug it to the side window, pop open the old window, and chicken out. My boldest sister is also a little unsure, but we push her up and inside and we make her take pictures and grab up brochures. I'm the oldest, so I make her do this, pretending I would do it myself.
We walk around the tiny yard. There's a massive cast iron pot I would love to own, and an old stove, and a cat inside of the outhouse. Our poke-around tour takes us five minutes, and we are covered in mosquitos and rush back to sit in the rental car. Avoiding, we drive around teeny little Marksville, where we never lived, imagining our grandparents and great-grandparents, checking out the court house where my great-grandmother worked, taking pictures of old clocks and houses and tiled signs. And then we are done, and we must head back.
We sit. We sit on the leather sofa and wait. We paint at the small kitchen table, passing watercolors around and adding to and adjusting each other's paintings without talking. We chat with Miss Jackie, my Gran's lifelong best friend, and I am so sad for her. My grandmother is like a child, now, quiet and unable to do anything at all but breath heavy, hard breaths. Miss Jackie has worked at the desk beside my Gran for 50 years. She knows her better than anyone. "Here, mah baby," she tells me, "you come sit beside your Gran, and you hold her hand." I sit, and I don't know what to say. We all look around at each other. My gran sits up a bit and lifts her arms, and we are all startled, all but the nurse. "Reflex," she tells us. I think that she is reaching for someone.
On Saturday evening, my sister and I climb into my grandmother's double bed and somehow we are fast to sleep. This next bit is the strangest, and I don't know how to tell it.
I am sleeping, and I wake to what seem to be car lights in the room, bright as a highway, fast speeding lights, but white, bright white. I stand, disoriented, to close the window shade, thinking that perhaps her street is busy, and feeling annoyance. But her street is quiet, a row of track houses on medium lots, suburban-ish in the tiniest rural town. I shake my head and get back in bed.
I am sleeping, and white lights are rushing fast through the room where I sleep, rushing from the front room where my grandmother is dying, sweeping a million miles an hour past the bed beside me and out through the back of the house. It's so bright. It's a bright, speeding river of light. I sit up, and my mother is at the bedroom door. "Get up, girls," she says. "It's time - she is passing now."
We gather around her bedside, and the hospice nurse is at the door. "Is she in pain?" I ask, over and over. Her eyes are closed. She is breathing, we are told, but I cannot hear or see her breathing. I know that she is gone, already, that though she may be breathing, her soul has been swept away with the lights. My mother wants me to sing something, but the room is so quiet and strange, and I can think of no songs. I regret that I did not sing.
And then she is really gone, marked by the slow nod of the hospice nurse, who looks at her watch to mark the time. The nurse talks, my mother signs papers with someone who's entrance I had not noticed, and we are crying. Miss Jackie keeps saying, "I thought I was prepared for this." My aunts pour coffee. My grandmother's small body is lifted into a blanket and taken out of the house, and that's the odd, flat, abrupt end of a life.
I am in the bathroom standing at her counter, looking at all the things she leaves behind. Lancome powder, probably $30, that my aunts will argue over in a few hours. My gran is, was, the last link I have to Louisiana, where I was born and grew until I was ten, something I was always proud of. She has gone, now, and there won't be any reason for me to come back to this town. There is no longer anyone to watch over the Hypolite-Bordelon house - the funding ran out, and the house will fade, probably, too, as all things do. We come into this world with nothing and we leave it again with nothing. I am determined to remember not to hold anything tightly, not to leave much for others to clean up, sort out, throw away.
My mother comes in beside me, sets her coffee on the counter. I look at her and think that we are both moved up a generation now. Now, we are older. I know that it will feel like moments until my own sisters sit beside me, old, I hope, and wait with me for white lights to rush through the house.
"Death twitches my ear. 'Live', he says, 'I am coming.'" - Virgil
This evening, in Mass, Jane Frances climbed wildly on the pew while the older four children tried to ignore her. She was aware of the ignoring, and set about fighting it. Jane is potty training, and must always use the potty during church. When I took her to the restroom for the second time, I somehow managed to tear the side of her Pull-Up irreparably, leaving her bare-bottomed and unladylike, which sent the other children into giggle fits.
Mass is often offered for the repose of the soul of someone who has recently passed. We pray for our loved ones who have gone and for those who will soon die. My Grandmother Joyce is among these; she has end-stage lung cancer and expects just a few more months. I pray for her the best I can while the children sniffle and giggle around and on top of me. As I look at the little ones, I am struck by how much my prayer has shifted over the past year. As a younger mom, I often prayed for protection. Many times, it didn’t come through—or, at least, not as I thought of protection. Now I pray for the strength I’ll need when inevitable losses come my way.
Teresa, a college friend of mine, lost her son a few years ago. He drowned, and was not revived. His faithful parents, full-time foreign missionaries, prayed and prayed, and he died, nonetheless. The toddler daughter of a friend fell into a pool this past spring, where she was found after nearly five minutes. Her faithful parents prayed and prayed, spoke healing over the child, and she lived—miraculously. These moms know each other, and when I heard Teresa comment that she was praying for the recovery of the little girl, I wondered at her generosity.
I wonder about God’s protection. The story of Lazarus causes me to bristle a bit. Jesus raised his friend, but He doesn’t raise my own, or Teresa’s, or so many others. When my little cousin died in a pool accident just before I was married, a priest friend cried with me and told me how sad God was that this had happened. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I had not thought of God’s compassion and His own grief, and it seemed silly that I had somehow missed the crux of it. I had to sift out my lack of understanding of how God could be in control, and a good Father, and allow these terrible things to happen. The answers I was given or could come up with on my own never seemed right, but Emmanuel, God-with-us, God who was really sorrier about my nephew than I was myself, was the answer completely. Jesus wept. And then He raised, as we know He will on the last day—last, because night will not follow it.
Since that first loss, and maybe before, I’ve been a little obsessed with the concept of death. I felt so utterly unprepared for it. I don’t want my children to be unprepared, so I tell them strange things like, “Anyone can die at any moment,” and, “Everyone dies, you know,” and I’m sure that’s very comforting for them. My husband works with the dying in palliative care here at our tiny town's hospital. I ask about his patients, if they are afraid, and he says that most often, they are. I remember late pregnancy, how I was afraid then, but ready, and I wonder if old age feels that way. I hope it does.
I have not known my Grandmother Joyce well. She lived in Louisiana, and my family visited some when I was a kid. I went to visit on my own when I was old enough to think Marksville, Louisiana, was quaint and exotic. I loved seeing the old Hypolite Bordelon House there—a standing bit of family history, from the first of us to come to the United States. I loved sleeping on the uneven floor of Great Grandmother Essie’s house, built by her own parents, where she raised my grandmother and her siblings, and where she lost the youngest in a car accident in the driveway. There were images of unfamiliar French Blessed Mothers on the shelf in her living room, and a painting of St. Rita. I was the only practicing Catholic in my family as a teen, and when I saw these things, I felt the roots of my faith. Essie had a strong Cajun French accent, and it made me nervous to talk to her. I brought a chatty boyfriend along once in college, and he asked her a million questions while I stood nearby in the kitchen, eating Essie’s beet salad and learning how to talk to old people. After that, I visited more often, amused by the piquant flavor of Marksville and fascinated by my grandmothers.
Stephen and I visited while we were engaged, and we sang on Grandma Joyce’s porch. It was a folk song with a bit of French I didn’t understand in it, and Grandma Essie cried and hugged us. The next time we visited Marksville was to attend her funeral. I saw the names of all the women in my line there in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. I was too young then to think I would ever be among them. I looked at their names on the old gravestones with the eyes of an observer, but now I know I am part of the story.
When Essie died, much of my sadness was the loss of not knowing her well. I think it will be the same when my Grandmother Joyce passes. We are more connected than I ever knew, and now, it’s nearly too late. When one generation goes, I am pushed a bit closer to my own mortality. What a quick passing it has been. Grandma Essie told me that it gets faster and faster the older you grow.
I have a middle school child now. She is five-foot-one, and I am five-foot-three. When I hear her speak, I think, “Who is the grown up in the other room with the kids?” I see my sister in her smile. I hear my mother and my aunt in her voice and all the women of my family in her quirky, bookish humor. I look at my mostly-grown girl, and time seems a blink. I thought I’d have so long to figure everything out and to parent right, in the right town, in the right house. I have just a few short years before she is grown. How can we live knowing that we are not protected from all of the passings? How can we remember that we don’t have the time we think we have?
Every May, my family gathers to celebrate my sister’s birthday and my parents’ anniversary with a crawfish boil. This year, my sister thought my mom would enjoy having a theme, and my mom thought my sister wanted a themed party, so we gathered early in the afternoon and set up paper pineapples and wore leis for each other. My family is full of crazy people, but they’re my own crazy people. I ask my mom and sister to pay attention to my daughter, to see how she talks to her siblings, to help me figure out how to help her to be kind. They tell me they see that she can be unkind, but that I ought to remember she is also lovely and helpful and sweet. She hasn’t made friends easily here in our new town, but this is it for us, and I, who struggle to make new friends, must help another person do so. The blind must lead the blind. I wonder what Grandma Essie, who was always a little bit spicy, might have said had I ever asked her about the secret of life. I imagine she would have told me that she had no idea—how should she know?
“Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.”
—Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World
Moving has been something like starting a new sketch book. It's so hard to make the first mark. We are in that awful in between moment before beginning a new painting - uncomfortably nose to nose with a blank canvas, meaningless and empty, and we need faith and warmth to fill it up. We are terrified of messing it all up - like it's something precious, which it is and is not.
I am thinking, as you are too, a lot about immigrants. I am thinking of mommies and daddies dragging children away from people and homes they know and love for an uncertain hope of something secure, something brighter. I am thinking a lot about being new to a place and doing the first hard work of not belonging, so others can belong. The work of sowing in tears so someone else can reap the comfort of being in a place they feel at home. Making the first mark. We are about to list our perfect house in Georgia, and I am not replacing it with a better or equally perfect house in a smooth pass. I am replacing it with nothing - blank canvas.
I am the rich young man who went away sad. We don't get the rest of the story, but I am the rich young man who went home sad, sold everything, and thought Jesus meant he would get better stuff back in return, when what He meant was freedom that feels like falling.
The world weighs a million pounds around my shoulders and my head throbs.
At lunch I ask Stephen, "could I be dying?" My head aches every day. My stomach is in shreds. I'm not hungry. I don't want coffee and my heart feels cold and races.
This is not about a house.
My mother is watching her own beautiful mother age and become ill. My grandmother can't breathe, and is sad and won't answer phone calls. Last night, my mother took a long call from my uncle up in her room in the house where I grew up. She was gone an awfully long time. My sister and I went upstairs together to check on her and she was tear-y eyed. We stood all together in the hall looking at the wall full of old pictures- pictures my mom had made when I was about ten, all of my five siblings together, the twins, tiny babies. I know what was happening in that time now better than I did then, that it was a terrible time for my mother, and there we are, all smiling in pressed linen. I'm so glad she had those pictures made. It was hope.
"Abby is so tall now," my sister says. It is her first daughter's 2nd birthday and we are gathered to celebrate. "She will be gone before you know," says my mother.
I want everyone to slow down. People in cars are driving too fast. My children move too fast and too loudly. My heart races.
We are making an album - something that feels like a ridiculous luxury - a silliness. We are making an album with two of the best people we know - which is exciting and makes me feel sure I'll disappoint. We made the terrible decision to crowd fund it - community is the new record label - and every pledge that comes in or doesn't come knocks me around, storm tossed in the boat where Jesus sleeps.
Why would we do this, I wonder? We are parents. We must do responsible things. I know there is something in this of wanting to show our children the infinite and enduring value of creative work. My friend tells me, "spinning plates will make you dizzy," and I am dizzy. Freedom that feels like falling.
Lent is supposed to be just this way - ashes to ashes. Giving up and dying. And then hope comes. Life is meant to kill us - and then we are reborn. We do things we are afraid to do, and courage comes from doing, not before. Friday and Sunday. Empty tombs and new stories.
... If you're curious, our PledgeMusic site is here: www.pledgemusic.com/themosleys
First of all, if you're thinking you'll need to comment about how my art or our music isn't bad, go ahead. Make it really nice and encouraging. Compare our art or music to something super outstanding - aim high - I'd say Lumineers or above is a decent line to shoot for, maybe Joni Mitchell. Emmylou.
I've been working very hard on illustration these days. I've signed up for a class I could not afford and have been up very early most mornings and at my desk in a corner in the playroom, paint water and cups of coffee alike with paintbrushes inside. And I have worked very hard to make things detailed, beautiful, unique, and all of it has been just ok. Pretty alright. My portfolio looks lackluster. Things I was once proud of look weak to me now.
Music too. Our songs are fine. Pretty alright. I don't hate ALL of them anymore, so either I'm becoming desensitized to our excrementitious music, or we have improved.
Here is something I shouldn't say. When I listen to the music of beginners, I have before thought, "they ought to do something else." When I see the art of new artists, I have thought, "this is not for them." Why is this? I don't associate art or music with practice, even though I MYSELF AM A BEGINNER. Judge not, right? It's shameful - I am ashamed of this. I would never tell my sweet friend, "Hey, not so good. Maybe you have some other talent? Can you do sports, maybe?" No.
I associate art and music with some sort of natural brilliance - and I am discouraged when I feel I haven't got it. But I know better - I know that to be a good artist/writer/whatever, you have to be willing to be a bad one first. That takes lots of bravery - to do something doggedly, publicly while you are still bad at it. It's the Chesterton quote you're sick of seeing on my instagram - "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." It's the Ira Glass thing - your taste makes you an artist, and there will be years where your work disappoints you because IT JUST ISN'T THAT GOOD, and this is where people quit, but don't quit. Push through it. I know it, but I also doubt it, and wonder if I am going to push and push to be pretty good at a lot of things, and never very good at any of them, despite a great effort.
Why the constant comparison? I watch a video of someone playing live, and I ask myself, "are they better than us?" and "am I as funny as she is?" and also, "am I about her size? or fatter?" and I do this all day and I feel discouraged and crazy, because I am certainly a little or a lot of both. I know how to flip it - and I do flip it. I say aloud, "She's so funny and her dress is quirky and she looks super cool" and "I love her gravelly, awesome tone" and "how inspiring", I say. I do mean it, but why does someone else's skill place me? Why do I need to find my place in a line, as though there is some awful gym wall where we will all be lined up like in PE class, placed top to bottom? It's gross. It's a gross vanity. I'm sorry for it. I know I'll be way, way down the table from Christ in Heaven, waving and hoping He can see me, wondering who is sitting next to Him and if she's entertaining and holy and if she can sing.
This is worse with my peers, musical or artistic. I don't sit around and listen to Emmylou and feel shitty. That's some other league and it doesn't merit comparison. So this is worse to me - these are my fellow travelers, these are my seat mates on the bus and my very friends. We do what we do not want to do, and what we want to be, we are not.
I think of Jesus asking Peter "who do you say I am?" Before I was educated on this, I read as though he were really asking. What a thing to ask a friend. "Who do you think I am? What am I like to you?" This is like how I take Facebook quizzes, Meyers-Briggs and enneagram tests, how I align with Anne of Green Gables, how my INFP saint is Francis. I am looking for me. I am doing this with music and art - "who do you say I am?" and "is this any good?" and "is this worth my time, the investment I am placing in these things when I have so much already to care for and manage?" No one really can or will answer, but some truth is gained in the asking. If you asked me this about yourself, I would love you and tell you emphatically that YES, yes, it's worth it and that you have so much to share and to say.
My assignment for my expensive children's book illustration course this week is to design the cover. Every week, there's a review of the best pieces and we are on our final week. I've not been in any review, and I see why, and I know I won't be in the review this week either. I haven't even opened up my art board to work on this week's assignment. The quality of the work of my classmates is off the charts - never mind that some of them have worked for Pixar. Never mind that some have illustrated loads of books already. Never mind all that. I know I am meant to do the work for the sake of the work and for what I will learn from just doing the work.
Still, though, still, there is me.
We had a practice last night with new bandmates. It was a quiet rehearsal, four very solid introverts, and I sang with mediocrity and weird nervous energy. I know that I'm not mediocre, but also that I am. Our sweet friend Blind Jimmy visited not long ago, and as we sat around making a work tape of songs we plan to record next month, Jimmy says, "It's not the best thing I've ever heard, but it isn't the worst. It's kind of mediocre, and I don't mean that in a bad way," he said. "I'm mediocre myself," he said. And there wasn't a solution for it. Time, maybe, and practice, and the growth in skill that will come from all of that. This is a big part of why I love Jimmy nearly more than anyone. I know that this is true.
Today I will clean my house and fold my laundry and skill doesn't play into these things at all. Probably by this afternoon, I'll make more mediocre art and then tomorrow, more, and soon I'll look back at the things I've made this week and wonder how I ever thought it was any good. What a weird sort of progression! So earthly and unsatisfying! One of my hopes for Heaven is that the imbalance between taste and skill will slip away, that we will look back and see ourselves mean and vain and small and skill-less, and feel affectionately towards how we once were.
I have never been on a sailboat. Or, maybe I have been on a sailboat at port. My dad lives on a boat himself - not the sailing kind - so it's likely that I've stood on someone's sailboat as my dad chatted with a friend. I have never been out to sea on such a boat. Last night I slept fitfully and woke this morning remembering a dream about sailing.
We were all on a sailboat, rough water but not frightening, grayish skies but no storm. No pushing wind, no land to be seen, no clear direction. I didn't know what I was doing, much, but I was making slight adjustments to this or that (the "boom"? the sail) and watching Stephen do the same, kids all below in a small cozy galley. I was nearing frantic - and the boat was just sitting still as I bumbled about it.
Sailing looks passive - you cannot see the wind. If I have ever watched a sailor, I did not understand the adjustments he was making as he moved the boat about. I can see how the steering wheel works - not much more. He moves the sails to catch the wind, and he understands the path of the wind somehow. I can lick my finger and try to guess the direction, but I don't know it for certain, and wouldn't depend on my guess to guide us anywhere.
Last year was a tricky bit of sailing for our family. We guessed at a course - guessed that the wind was blowing southward, followed, and we are now somewhere that we did not begin. Here we are still sitting in that boat, waiting on the wind to pick up, and rather than resting and watching the ocean, I am pouring over maps and charts and plans. But I don't know how the boat works. I can't adjust much at all - I am just waiting on the wind.
Sitting in traffic makes me want to jump out of my skin. I would rather take a route I know will be hours longer, just to keep moving. I like to keep a vision and direction firmly before me. I need to see land ahead, but the distance between where I am and where I hope to go is so vast that I can't see that far, and I cannot gauge my progress.
2017. Little things this year. I'll try to rest and wait, and not be restless while doing so. I'll make a home inside of someone else's home, knowing it is not mine, knowing that what we think we own is not ours, even if we own it. I will make a home knowing that all I do will be undone and packed away in boxes, sooner than I'd like, and I will remember that this is always true of life. I'll visit some places I haven't yet and try to hold onto a vision that seems not to be coming any nearer - a plot of land made for community, for artists and musicians to come in and out, here in this odd new area where we have landed.
I don't even know how that boat works.
2017, I will try to watch the ocean, wait without frenzy, try to stay in the boat.
I feel like I've been standing on one foot for an entire year. I'm tired. When I sit to write songs, the only refrain I want to write is, "I'm tired, I'm sooooooo tired". But standing on one foot for so long is tiresome, and I'm glad, in a way, to plant my feet just about anywhere to ease the pressure.
Goodbye, 2016. I'm glad to see you go. Not because you were awful - you weren't entirely awful, truly. I'm ready to see you go, like I'm ready to see a nice, well-meaning potential new friend move along after twenty minutes of pulled, awkward conversation at the bookstore cafe. "Goodbye, we'll try this again, let's hope it will run more smoothly next time, we'll see."
I don't make resolutions - I mean to, but I never seem to get to it. Probably around February, I'll make it to the adoration chapel, sit and pray, think a bit through the year behind and the one coming on, and find a few things to focus on. This move is just like the last one - I've a feeling of frittering away my days, each like the one before, and nothing to show much at the close of any. I drive a lot. Sometimes I drive, get somewhere, and don't feel up to the newness of it. I go back home. I know how this sounds. I'm hoping this will even out in the next year, but these things take forever, especially for me.
I know I'm not the only one. This year is odd in that we are, many of us, feeling a grief that isn't quite our own, the grief of a world broken into pieces and the grief of feeling fumblesome and unable to really help. The heaviness of wondering if the direction of the world is moving further toward hate. The dark of this Advent is a waiting, painful, wondering anticipation of coming light.
Likely you know this already, but the Advent wreath has four candles - one for each week - and three are purple or blue, and one, this Sunday's candle - is pink. I always thought of Advent as the pink kind of Advent - the pink candle we light tonight for Gaudate Sunday speaks to a joyful anticipation of Christ's coming. But the other weeks are blue or purple - and this speaks to a different kind of anticipation. An "even so, come Lord Jesus" kind of anticipation - a darker, sadder tinge to the waiting, a shaking your head and wondering why and how kind of waiting. Advent is picking through darkness, looking straight at it. I'm not sure I've ever looked more forward to a new season.
It gets dark here so early. When I walk to collect the children from school, the sun is golding and the light is slipping away. By 4:30, it's dark and I have long hours ahead. I'm lighting as many candles as I can.
O hasten, hasten through the dark under the dim reminding stars to find again what is small, tender, beloved the hope and mercy of this world at the mercy of this world in the darkest dark, the longest night.
Jane is sleeping next to me on a mattress on the floor in my sweet friend's spare room. Stephen is hanging with our old friends at a sporty party of some sort. We are back in our old hood too soon after leaving. Stephen had some sort of meeting and we are traveling quite far to play in a music camp/festival thingy in Indiana, so it really made sense for us all to come. We have all loved seeing our friends and neighbors, and received this excellent parting gift:
I think it was too soon for me to come back. I have been teary eyed in public, and I cannot find my sunglasses. I couldn't manage to drive past our house and have successfully avoided it. When we pulled into familiar Palmetto after our long trudge up from the coast, Jane said, "We are home! I can go to my house and play with my toys!"
Terrible. Heart-wrenching. Horrible.
But everyone seems, for the most part, happy at the beach. It's still like a messy vacation where we've intensely overpacked. We miss our friends. We miss a house that feels normal to sleep and wake in. I miss not having to open six drawers to remember where I put the silverware. I miss the life of the neighborhood here - people passing and chatting on the street, dogs and kids all over, my children running outside to play for hours, and so many familiar faces. Our neighborhood in Florida isn't; it's just a house. Time will tell, I guess, but I hope we can come back.
A bit of moving advice: (if you got here by googling "moving advice", this next part has nothing to do with packing organization, colored tape, or box numbering systems. You are wasting time and should just go pack, lazy procrastinator!)
The bit of advice: if you are new somewhere, do not go to a party or gathering of any sort wherein you are the only one on the outside. It feels exactly like being the new kid with red hair and glasses in 6th grade. Because it is exactly like that. Except I have contacts and I am old.
More advice: when moving, do not shove your anti-depressant into a Clinique bonus bag and then forget where it is for four days. This will do you no favors during a complete life upheaval. No favors at all, friends.
This is a year of adventure. We have renters in our own house, and are in a lovely place where Spanish moss hangs in the trees and a bay breeze blows through the porch. I had to say, "Spanish moss does not come inside the house" to my boys. I get to spend the night with neighbors and friends as we pass through town, which would always have been fun but also would've been weird to do when living right here.
I want to be here drinking coffee with these very dear people, but I also feel jittery and itchy to get out of here. A quick cut of connecting cords would likely be less painful. This has been a long, dragging goodbye. Like when you make a nice exit from a shop, leaving with a charming and funny goodbye quip, and then you have to go back in because you forgot your keys.
Tomorrow we are rushing towards Indiana with the Airstream in tow. It is dirty and still needs new window shades, and I never hung the amazing wall paper. I had wanted it to be perfect and clean and pretty, stocked and maybe full of some exciting new toys, but ah well. Last summer, we had a great week at this family music camp (what a totally bizarre thing!) and I hope this year is fun for the children. They're complaining and asking why we have to go so many places all the time. We are sorely tired, all, and I especially am out of sorts, which makes the kids act super weird. Or they're out of sorts all on their own, and weird also. It can't always be my fault.
Always fun: close quarters with strangers when your way-too-many-to-properly-discipline-obviously kids are out of sorts and rude. I'm sure I'll have a moment or two of disciplining too loudly or too fake-calmly because people are watching. "Are you making a good choice?" "You must be sooooo tired because we have been traveling so much!"
Because I am most of the time anxious, I've learned a few tricks that help to keep me from full-on panic. One is to say, "I'm so excited about (whatever I am not really excited about at all)..." This works. It does. I'm so excited about our new house. Our new adventure. Our trip to Indiana. Singing new songs for new people. Hanging out in the trailer. Driving w the kids. If you see me and I say this to you, pretend to believe me. That'll help, too.
My friend Adam at Foundling House asked me to share a bit about our move and our epic road trip at his online literary mag, Foundling House. I'm honored to be included, and you can read my bit here:
We are winding down. We ought have been home by now, but today we passed through Oklahoma and Texas and are landing in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I've booked a fancy RV park on a river here because it has a pool, but it's raining.
One of the most exciting parts of this long trip, of course, has been passing through so many different landscapes. Sometimes these seemed to transition with shocking speed - mountains overtaking plains, then disappearing abruptly again. Arkansas is very homelike - pines, magnolias. The mini malls we pass have the same stores in the same familiar order. I could be in Florida. I am staring straight ahead and hoping to get settled - near the pool - in a hurry.
It will be wonderful to be home, and also not at all, as I have to begin packing up for a move in just three weeks. And it's no use at all being sad about it.
Right now, Stephen is grilling and Abigail is chopping bell peppers and making foil bagged buttered carrots and chicken skewers over the campfire. There are fireflies in the pinking sky, and Lilly is gathering them up into a jar. The boys and Jane are tossing a ball, and they think they're playing Four Square. Today we swam, visited the Bath House Brewery, hiked and ate outstandingly delicious cupcakes (Fat Bottom Girls in Hot Springs - funny, not too long afterwards, I passed in front of a window, saw my reflection and wondered if my bottom is maybe indeed larger than average. Thanks a lot, cupcake shop with your shame name). The Arkansas evening air is cool and fresh, and there's a frothy fog over Lake Catherine, just feet from our campsite.
Lake Catherine, fickle lake that tried to kill us all last night.
A severe thunderstorm rolled through the park last night and sat down right on top of us from midnight until... I'm not sure how long. I was up checking accuweather and Weather Channel and NOAA and Storm Tracker and decided finally to cover my head under the blankets (comforting) and try to sleep. Rain was pounding. Thunder was hard shaking the tin trailer and and the lightning was causing a strobe effect inside. When it lit, I would peer out at the river to see if it was rising.
Covers over my head, I heard the alarm on my phone sound. Flash flood warning. If I lived here, likely I would ignore a flash flood warning entirely. As I don't live here, I felt sure that monster Lake Catherine was going to explode out of its banks and consume the trailer and the children inside. A tasty tin Twinkie.
At 2 am, I made Stephen drive us to a hotel, not terribly near, through a horrific storm. We carried half-sleeping shoeless children from trailer to car in hard rain and flashing lightning. Stephen thought I was being ridiculous. I was angry that he thought so and still insisted that we go.
Oh, the car was quiet. As we were rushing out, Abigail remarked that everyone else seemed to be staying put, and Stephen made some sarcastic comment about how he supposed they all had a death wish or that their RVs could probably float. He may deny it, but it was totally sarcastic.
We stopped at the first hotel we passed. Ok, not the first. The first was nasty. Also, the second. So, we stopped at the third or fourth hotel we came to, and of course, they had no room big enough to sleep us even just most of us. They did have adjoining rooms, which we took. Double rooms, double cost. No. Double rooms, triple cost - the fancy campsite, too. Stephen was absolutely kind and gracious and compassionate except that he wasn't, so he was silent. Just as good.
As we slept there for just six hours, the hourly rate of this hotel works out to about $30. Whatevs. Upon our return to the campsite to dress and collect shoes and drink our own coffee, everything looked perfect and well and no damage to our trailer or to anyone else's. I did notice that the camper next to us was gone and all of their outdoor things left behind, so I am assuming that they were swept away or struck down.
Tonight the weather is looking threatening again and I am anxious. The lake fog has been blown away by increasing wind. Unfamiliar weather is frightening.
We intend to roll out early tomorrow and make the nine hour drive to Georgia in one extra-long day. I'm hoping everyone will be too exhausted to insist on their music (I love you, Slugs & Bugs, but it's been many thousands of miles) and maybe we can drive in quiet peace.
Colorado is growing on me. We are in a gorgeous park with bunnies everywhere. I'm like a Disney princess. A blue butterfly alighted gently on my royal hand and stayed there for a full five minutes. There are brightly colored birds all around. It's lush, green and temperate.
Chatfield State Park is grassy and has a blue lake at the center that I can see from the Airstream window. It's flat and entirely un-scary. When I woke the first morning here, it was to the strong smell of pot - and when I peeked out the window to be sure Stephen had not taken a new hobby, I saw a woman with long white hair doing yoga. This is the Colorado I expected. The sites here are spacious (huge) and spread out far enough that we could even practice music around our campfire late at night, were we not too tired.
We have two shows scheduled right near our return - one at the ever-intimidating Eddie's Attic, where we are splitting the bill and not opening for someone - and someone remarked as we were leaving, "I can't wait to hear all of the new songs you'll write on your travels!" Maybe the songs will come later, but we are tired and we smell like bug spray. Generally our campsite neighbors have been super close by, and serenading people against their will is awkward. Singing telegram awkward. So we haven't practiced much.
Disciplining children is extremely tiring, and all the more so because we have to experiment all of the time to find the best way of setting about it. I can't stand to read parenting books - when I do, I alternate between feeling irritated and feeling guilty. I am very wary of giving parenting advice (we have no idea what we are doing) and while I hope the kids turn out well, I'm not entirely confident that they will. I've seen the most lovely, wonderful families struggle hard with grown children. It seems like a crapshoot, and it's disheartening.
Parenting in front of family and friends is stressful. Parenting children who have been camping for three weeks is particularly stressful. I wanted Jane to be charming and sweet with my family - they've hardly seen her. Jane was curmudgeonly and rude and fussy. This child has the most amazing vocabulary. She is a well-spoken toddler, smart and witty. Jane kept all of this hidden and refused to do anything but point and grunt all week.
I write this as we sit at ALMOST the top of Raton Pass, right between New Mexico and Colorado. We are not admiring a scenic view. We are waiting for a tow truck, as our poor, tired Suburban decided that it could not make the pass. The engine began to overheat and we heard a high, whistling sound (radiator? is that a thing?) and we pulled right off the road at the top of the pass.
And now we are back en route after being towed up the pass, Airstream and all, by a REAL LIVE COWBOY, with a holster and pistol, tall and lanky and innately trustworthy. He tied our Suburban (trailer attached, all of us still inside) with a cloth strap to his tow vehicle and dragged us to the summit. After some poking around under the hood, he told us we ought to be ok back down, and that we could "probably make it to Santa Fe, most likely". So we are headed to Santa Fe now, in the dark, on a road that goes through absolutely nowhere. Skipping dinner and getting in quite late is a disappointment, but when I imagined this trip, I pictured many side-of-the-road waiting-for-a-tow moments, and this is the first, so I'm happy and relieved.
The best part of our Colorado visit was seeing friends. We visited some of our oldest, dearest friends and hung out with their five little ones. We drove up to Greeley to visit new friends that we met last summer at Escape to the Lake (family music camp). Though we didn't get to spend much time together there, I could tell they were kindred spirits, and our visit was comfortable and wonderful without any of the usual awkwardness of visiting someone you don't know well. Betony had just culled their bookshelves (funny, all of my friends have just Kon Mari'd) and this quickly confirmed my kindred spirit suspicions.
My college roommate and her five children also live in Colorado, and after a few nights at Chatfield we moved to a campground nearer her home in Longmont. She also has five children. I knew it would be nice to be with other big families, but it was surprisingly nice. There are things about parenting a half load of children that, while others can certainly understand, these moms and dads know deeply. I hate to say that I enjoyed particularly their worse moments - rude kid responses, toddler fits, sassy preteens, irritated parental reactions. These are some of the best people and most wonderful parents I know, and it reassured me greatly to see that things are not perfect and dreamy in all the other homes but mine, because I am not Catholic enough or organized enough or consistent enough. Kids are just kids.
Shaun and Joy are raising a curious, chatty, delightful little brood, and I am so glad that I'll get to watch them grow up, if only from a distance. Our children walked and hiked together with their arms around each other's shoulders. Mandy and Jon are new to Colorado, and I sat in her yard in a lawn chair and listened as she filled me in on the struggles her sweet children have had in school and with their recent move. Mandy is as authentic and loyal as they come. Once during college, I was particularly homesick and Mandy made me red beans and rice and sweet tea to cheer me up. She even scoured the Ohio grocery stores until she tracked down some Tony Chacheres. I can't believe my luck with friends. I know more than my share of outstanding people. When I think of the friends I have, I feel a little more confident - maybe I'm not as weird as I think.
Out of Jane's window, the strawberry moon is rising in a most spectacular show over a flat field, and out of my window, the sun is setting over the far off Sangre de Cristos mountains. I could stretch out my arms and touch both at once. The clouds around the sunset look like pink angels and seem a perfect welcome to mystical New Mexico, "land of enchantment".
We are stuck in Santa Fe. What was meant to be a stop over has turned into an extended visit. Our tow vehicle needs a new transmission (maybe our fault? it was well within towing limits!) and this will take through Friday, at least. And cost several million billion dollars. There are worse places to be stuck - including Las Vegas, New Mexico, which is where our car trouble began, so I'm glad we made it all the way here.
Santa Fe is weird and brown and hot and enjoyable. We visited the Plaza on Tuesday and saw Saint Francis Cathedral (a basilica), which is beautiful and very old. The reliquary in the oldest part of the church, built in the 1600s, had some amazing things, and the oldest statue in the US of the Virgin Mary is housed here. She has a profound and cool title that I can't quite remember and should probably Google - something like "Our Lady who Conquers through Love". The southwestern religious art made me want to draw - but of course I haven't any time - and Santa Fe is brimming with inspiration for the visual artist. It's heavy in the dusty air.
Southwestern art is usually invisible to me. If I notice it at all, it's because I'm seated near it in a restaurant. It's hotel lobby kind of art. It's from Kirklands. Not here. One of my artist friends mentioned that here it is in proper context and is beautiful, and apt. The Stations of the Cross in St. Francis Cathedral were refreshing and accessible, unlike the clean white carved ones I always see, and tonight during a delightful dinner at Tomasinas, I sat across from a bright painting of a round-ish, jolly Fransican-Ish Jesus that was really wonderful. These are the colors of my own faith, bright and real, smudgey and imperfect, capturing something of Christ, knowing the impossibility of a perfect representation. This is the town of St. Francis, who is one of my heavenly posse, and I'm okay to be stuck here.
Jane keeps saying, "why we stuck in Santa Fe? Where is ours car?"
The Airstream is feeling cozy tonight. The girls were painting one another's nails and Lilly was braiding my hair while Jacob and Henry read. Ever since I read Roald Dahl's Danny, Champion of the World (one of my most favorite books ever) as a young girl, I've imagined that living in a gypsy caravan would be the best life. This feels like that life tonight.
Except for when Henry bumped past me as he was trying to get a drink and asked, "why is your bottom so big?" I responded that it seemed to me a sort of normal size for a bottom, and he said, "hmm... no. Its actually bigger than my WHOLE head." And he... measured. And it was.
Please keep in mind that Henry is very tiny, even for his age, and I'm pretty sure he must have a very small head. Probably abnormally small. Probably I should have a doctor take a look.
We are worn out from running around a super neat playground (Railway Park) and from an afternoon at the Santa Fe Climbing Gym. The kids are bound to break my anxious heart by being mountain climbers. Even Jane was up the toddler wall in no time. We followed up climbing with an enormous and authentic New Mexican dinner at Tomasinas, because we may be fittish, but we sure as heck don't want to look it. Sopapillas for all, though my kids called them beignets and wondered why they didn't bring powdered sugar.
Tomorrow, maybe, I'll tell you about our mid-pass mountain rescue, where a real cowboy tows our Yukon and our Airstream. It was entirely too exciting and needed to steep a few days to brew into a funny story.
This morning, the littlest kids awoke before the sun and so we quickly turned on the TV for a few moments of quiet coffee. Henry burst through our bedroom door (yes, we have a door - I'm very fond of doors) and announced, "DAD! There's a grass trimmer you can get for only nineteen-ninety-nine dollars!" and Jane Frances was right behind him, crying, "My show is ov-uh!"
We don't have cable at home, because we are better parents than you and maybe poor-er parents than you, but our kids watch loads of TV anyhow with Netflix and Amazon on the computer. Our Airstream is equipped with a satellite dish and it's amazing. The littlest ones have never seen commercials, and Henry is enamored of them and Jane Frances is infuriated by them. It's darling.
We've had two rough days of white-knuckled driving. Because I am excellent at mathematical calculations, I can report with certainty that Henry talked 94% of the drive, non-stop, almost without breathing, and cried and wailed the remaining 6%. I've broken it down for you here in this highly accurate pie chart.
This particular day (two days ago now - about the limits of my memory) was meant to be a "light driving day", and here below is our route. No big deal. 2 h and 17 minutes.
But it was more like this:
The GPS kept sending us down unpaved, vertical roads that would have taken us straight to the gates of St. Peter. At the second of these suggested Roads of Certain Death (indicated in green above), Stephen and I sat staring. But then I had the brilliant idea to call the Dept. of Transportation. I like Departments. Because, Harry Potter and British people. Stephen discussed routes w/ a lovely lady who directed us to a paved road about thirty miles ahead of our dirt pull-off. We offered her a job inside of our GPS.
Even once we found a paved road, this was an absolutely harrowing drive, and Stephen and I were tense and barking at the kids to "be quiet and stop distracting the driver OR WE COULD DIE." This is truth. The trailer felt doubly massive, the roads were truly tight, and we didn't have high expectations for Glenwood Springs, so the light at the end of the tunnel was about as bright as our flashlights, deep in need of new D-volt batteries and who buys those?
We finally arrive at Glenwood Springs. Glenwood Springs is like Monday, if Monday were a town. My impression of Colorado so far is that it is Utah's older, less attractive sister - still pretty, but not as charming, and bitter about it. I am in charge of navigating (haha) and booking (also haha - I refuse to make phone calls so we are limited to internet bookings only) and I had booked for us the world's most uninspiring campsite. Surprising, because it was directly backing to the Colorado River. This was particularly fabulous, because as we pulled in, we were informed that we were under a tornado warning. A tin box on a river is the perfect locale to ride out terrible weather. And no one had eaten, because our drive took us past nothing at all, so we didn't even unload the kids. We unhitched the trailer and drove into town. Glenwood Springs was twenty miles away, and once there, we ate the world's most uninspiring pizza. And went to Target (always exciting!), where we were those parents you see with kids in stores at ten o'clock at night. And back to camp. I may or may not have cried inside of the uninspiring pizza joint. Kind and pretty Utah, sweet Georgia, I miss you both.
When the trailer was unhitched, I realized that I had felt like it'd been released from my shoulders. I don't like to carry bags - I am always the mom without a diaper who asks you if you've got one - and I like to be unhindered. The trailer felt burdensome and dangerous. For the first time on this long adventure, I wished I could beam myself back home. I called (when I say "called", I always mean "texted") my neighbor for a bit of home-ish-ness, which made me even more sad.
When we get home, we have only a month before we are moving from our lovely spot near Atlanta to a place I cannot complain about in Florida, a historic home very near the Bay and the Gulf, very near my beloved sister and the rest of my coastal family, but I love where I live and don't want to go. Nonetheless, we are going and I am batting off dread and sorrow about it, because who could complain? We'll be renting out the home I love and renting a gorgeous old plantation home, with a wrapping porch with a view of the bay and Spanish moss in the trees. It's the kind of house that might inspire me to write Lucinda Williams-type songs. It should be a year of beach adventure, and I am assured that I can make the call to return at the end of the year should I be unhappy. I am assured that wherever I am, God makes His home with me, and that even alone I am not ever. And if I am miserable, I will choose to not be miserable, and I'll go to the beach.
So. Glenwood Springs.
We had intended to visit Glenwood Springs Hot Springs for a swim, but I am fast learning that Gulf Coast swimming is very unlike northern and western swimming. No offense, West, but your "beaches" are not. And your pools are funny square enclosures that lack charm. And it's cold out here, like March, which is considered too early to swim back home. Because of the location of the campsite (20 miles east) and the check out time (I mean, really, who planned this??), we would have had to book a second night at the unfriendly, tight KOA in Silt, Colorado in order to make the springs work for us. We also would have had to take a shuttle from a far off parking lot. So we skipped it and drove on.
Tomorrow, I promise to be much more positive. When we've told people along the way, neighbors at camp sites or Whole Foods checkout folks, they say "that's my DREAM", and it was always mine, too, and I am most grateful that we've been able to make this strange and crazy idea work. It feels like we are the grown-ups we thought we might one day be. Our new campsite in Chatfield State Park in Littleton, Colorado, is perfect and wide and lovely, and last night we spent time with some of our dearest, oldest friends and their five children, who were fast friends with ours. They hunted toads together and made each other giggle, and it's absolutely moving and inspiring to see the children of friends I have loved for more than half of my life become friends with my own children.
No complaints. Or, just a very few. And minor ones, at that.
Today as we walked the Upper Basin area around Old Faithful at Yellowstone we passed so many older couples who were alone and I thought how much easier and safer things looked on their end. I was recounting tales from a book I foolishly read earlier in the year called "Death in Yellowstone" for my tiny innocent children and making sure they were aware of the many, many ways they could expire if they didn't follow my every instruction.
Here's Jacob. He has his hands in his pockets because I have just gone over the possibility that pushing or fighting on the boardwalk over the geothermal area could result in a fall and consequently, death. He put his hands in his pockets so it would be "harder to shove people or do fighting".
But I'm glad we did this now with young children. I think they're learning a lot - but I think more so that this is sinking into them and infusing them with a sense of the varied beauty of the world. Apart from a bit of drama from the toddler and the preteen, they've been happy and well behaved. Mostly. And pretty centered, too - they seem like themselves and they're getting along as well as I could expect.
Which is not really that well. One thing that is especially challenging with such a lot of children is that there are exponentially more relationships to manage. If I could draw you a diagram of this, there'd be a million little arrows connecting each child to his four siblings and to Stephen and I. It's part of the benefit, as well, as they are learning excellent relational skills and will be highly desirable college roommates one day.
Because I am often googling reviews of campgrounds, I'll tell you a bit about Headwaters. This will be super boring to those of you not camping, so feel free to jump ahead. We chose a campground between the Tetons and Yellowstone so we could explore both, and also because we are last minute types and didn't book anything in Yellowstone. Headwaters/Flagg Ranch had nice amenities (gas, general store) but not so nice bathrooms, decently spaced sites (not terribly level) and more mosquitos than I've seen since my visit to the Everglades. So many mosquitos that I would not recommend stopping here - they swarmed any time we were outside and were seeping into the trailer in the most horrible way. It could be that June is just mosquito season and this is an unavoidable problem here in the area, but it was bad enough that we chose to move on a day early. We wish we had stayed at Madison or Fishing Bridge. Headwaters was not terribly convenient nor especially scenic. We'd recommend it only if you are like us (hello, fun, fly by the seat of your pants friend!) and didn't plan ahead and want to visit Yellowstone. It was good enough, and Yellowstone is worth the coating of caladryll I am sporting on my already pink legs. These were beastly, grizzly mosquitos and they laughed villainously at my natural bug spray. I sprayed my babies with DEET, friends, and you'd have done the same, all of you.
Today we are headed to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and will stay at a very kitschy KOA (Kampground w a K) that has a pool, wifi (oh we have missed you this last week, wifi, old buddy), and dinosaur themed mini golf. Yup. And cable, which the kids are excited about because we don't have it at home even, and it is the most delightful treat ever, and we are terrible parents because they NEVER get to watch Disney channel and ALL of their friends have cable and it is NOT FAIR.
I have missed having wifi or cell service more than I'd like to admit. I had to use an actual paper map and it was hard. So hard. I could not Google "dinosaur KOA pool" and I don't even know what it looks like. I couldn't Google which parts of the Yellowstone geyser path were sites of recent deaths. I just had to WING EVERYTHING. I looked in guide books. It was not nostalgic and cool. It was inadequate and I could not gather all the information like I always do. So the tacky KOA will be nice for the next few nights. And I can blog once more, which I know you have desperately missed. What have you been doing without me, while you stand in bathroom lines or wait at the DMV?? My apologies.
A quick catch up, because I don't hardly remember where we have been and certainly I'm not going to go back and blog it all. We spent a week in a house in Jackson, WY on the National Elk Refuge. My family met us there and we spent the week playing cards and drinking wine and coffee, like we do. Jackson Hole was especially charming, and there's a dreamy little bakery/coffee shop there, Persephone, that has outstanding food, Intelligencia coffee (this is the good stuff) and perfect staff - nice but slightly snooty in a way that assures you that the coffee will be top notch. And great fresh bread. And a vintage typewriter where you could leave a note on a pin board. Because, of course they do. If you're in Jackson Hole, go there.
Other highlights - a quaint little bookshop in a diagon-alley type spot, across from an excellent little paper store called MADE, where I bought a bunch of letter pressed cards that I'll probably misplace and never send. They brought me a KonMari joy, and that's good.
Other fun things - Snow King Mountain was a really fun day. We rode an alpine slide and a roller coaster and did a gorgeous, scenic, well done ropes course. I cheered from the ground because a baby on a ropes course is frowned upon. We did slip Henry in - the age limit was seven, but Henry somehow managed to weasel into a harness and up the course. Fearless little fella. While on the course, he kept shaming us by yelling things like, "I am SO GOOD at this, and I am only FIVE. YEARS. OLD." Also, "I'm the fastest on this and you're supposed to be SEVEN but I'm FIVE." And also, "I am not even SIX yet, and I'm supposed to be SEVEN to do this." Jacob had a minor melt down and one of the guides used Sherpa techniques to help him conquer his anxiety. It totally worked. I'm thinking of writing a "parenting Sherpa style" book. It was really effective and fascinating and Jacob completed all three levels of the course with no further trouble. I loved seeing his confidence and pride.
The family also went whitewater rafting (not me - again, baby) and horseback riding (nope) and rode an ATV all around the Elk Refuge. I did take Jane in the ATV, which was a bad idea but worked out just fine. I did not enjoy that ride. Funny how this works, but though I didn't enjoy it, I'm glad to have done it. Our family played a lot of hilarious back yard football (we are a load of somewhat shapeless bookworms), played campfire guitar, stayed up all night to finish a puzzle and play games, and went to a super terrific and ridiculous Chuck Wagon Dinner Show where we sang "She'll be Coming Around the Mountain" and such things.
String Lake in the Tetons was for me the highlight of this whole long trip. I think nothing is more beautiful and awe inspiring than green flowering mountains that spill into lakes. We hiked and swam and froze, and soaked in restoration. We skipped nearby Jenny Lake because it seemed crowded to the point where it would have been stressful and not relaxing. The Tetons have been peaceful and soothing, and I think I could stay forever and I've never thought of myself as a mountain girl.
Moving on is exciting, too. I've always wanted to visit Utah. I'm not excited about Dinosaur National Monument, because dinosaurs are boring and in fifth grade we studied them to the point of nausea, but Utah looks really striking and I can't wait to see. I imagine our family size will be less than impressive there and maybe I can say "you sure have your hands full" to people. I also plan to impress my children with my residual knowledge of fossils (thanks, Mrs. Niemeyer) and my mineral mastery.
I'd never heard of the Badlands until I heard it sung in a Rich Mullins song. "There is a silence in the Badlands, and over Kansas the whole universe was stilled..." Our family didn't experience any silence, but the stillness was thick.
What a perfect word, stillness.
It was early evening when we arrived from Topeka. We set up camp in a windy and funky loop campground and then headed to the lodge for dinner. There are no campfires allowed in the park, so my idea of Dutch oven cooking over a fire was going to have to wait. Fine. With no working water in the airstream, cooking and cleaning would've been a pain. I always check reviews and I was wary of the lodge food, but people had said the Indian Tacos were good, and they were. These were sweet, fluffy bread topped w beans and veggies and they were delicious. The gift shop here was pretty upscale and not so kitschy as the others we've seen song the way.
It's hard to get kids to bed at a decent time when the sun shines til 10:30. All were late to bed and up early to explore Badlands.
I was excited to check out the Junior Ranger program. We headed to the visitors center very near our campground and grabbed Junior Ranger guides. We watched a video at the center and poked around the shop.
Shoot, nope. That was Custer. It's all running together now in a blur of miles and cities and parks. We pulled up to the visitors center at Badlands just as a Junior Ranger program on wildlife was beginning. The kids enjoyed it, more or less, and Henry answered all the questions loudly and incorrectly and with gusto.
We hiked and climbed and I was nervous - these are cliffs. There are no guardrails. The tired children complained the whole hike that they were "not allowed to do anything" and repeated choruses of "you think I am a baby" because I didn't let them scale the heights and jump to their deaths. I sometimes feel that we have gone for quantity rather than quality with our parenting and this was certainly one of those days, wherein I feel we are raising an overly large load of rude people who will one day ruthlessly steal your parking spots and cut in front of you in lines.
This is where the traveling honeymoon wore thin. The ripping wind at the campsite kept us stuck inside and it felt tight and frustrating and the water wasn't working and the fridge smelled like old bread.
We did, however, enjoy ourselves. We did some sketching atop the cliffs and had a wonderful view everywhere we turned.
Our car full of particularly grumpy kids rolled on to Custer State Park, which was meant to be a convenient stop over. It was so exceedingly lovely that we stayed for two days. I would absolutely go back to Custer. While I don't understand the distinction between National and State Parks, I'm not sure why this isn't a National Park. It's a secret treasure - nearly alpine in beauty, huge, and well managed. The Junior Ranger program at Custer outshined all the rest - even Yellowstone, as I write this days after both - and the children took a birding class that has left them true bird nerds and I couldn't be more proud.
The only drawback here was our exhaustion. Tired and in foul tempers, we pulled in to the curvy lake front campground at Custer and scraped a long scrape into the side of the trailer along a pine tree. When we were finally parked, I muttered and sputtered while I scraped sticky pine bark off of the side of Streamy McAirstreamFace.
Ah. Lest I seem more grumpy than I ought, I should mention the rock we pulled straight over the night before the pine-in-the-dark incident. We pulled right over a decorative boulder poorly placed in a parking lot the night before, which popped a hole in the bottom of the trailer. We have since duct-taped it. All better.
Custer State Park is spectacular. More about that in a moment.
We thought it would be super cool to see Mount Rushmore. No. We actually didn't think that. We thought it might make things bearably interesting if we visited at night and saw the lighting. I don't know where the idea that fireworks would be involved originated, but this was communicated to our dog-tired, hiked-all-day children, and they were on board.
After dinner, we set off on treacherously twisty mountain roads towards Mount Rushmore. And we were in a hurry, because we were running late. Usually roads with scenic overlooks are roads I avoid. This route was full of them. And bison, free-ranging, grass-feeding massive behemoth bison, right along the roadside. No guardrails anywhere. We wound past unnerving signs that read "low flying plains", "vehicle restricted", and a yellow sign with a cow icon (maybe the bison icon was unavailable). There was at one point a turtle crossing sign. Maybe they're really big here. The British GPS girl directing us kept laughing maniacally.
*update* The road we were on is called Iron Mountain Road and it's here: http://www.dangerousroads.org/north-america/usa/3997-iron-mountain-road.html
So we get there. Thanks for your cliff-protection Hail Marys from last post; they did the trick. Jane is asleep and Henry is crying and half asleep. Henry is scrappy and always goes down swinging. No one has proper northern people night time clothing. Lilly is wearing five sweaters. Henry has on a thin pullover, and it's wet somehow. (When you have five kids, and their clothes are wet, you ignore this.) It's like, 900 miles from the parking garage and we walk carrying sleeping Jane and wailing wet Henry. Jacob had insisted on wearing some Teva-type open sandals. They're also kind of broken and I guess all his socks were dirty. Top level parenting here. We walk under a well lit, Epcot-esque flag display. Emerging with anticipation from the flag tunnel, we come upon the lighting ceremony.
The lighting ceremony proceeds in this way. A loud recording of America, The Beautiful plays. A ranger on a stage calls all the veterans and servicemen to join her. They make their way to the stage. It's kind of dark. These are old men. This takes about twelve hours. When we are all settled, the ranger asks EACH person standing on the stage with her to state their name, their branch of service, and where they're from. This takes about fourteen hours or so. The she announces that we will now light Mount Tushmore. (I see that typo. Im'onna leave that like that. And refer to it in this way.) The light comes on. It was as exciting as someone turning on a light. The flag was ceremoniously retired, which really is always moving, and that was it. Ranger was like, "That's all y'all. Go back to your freezing cars now."
So back through the wild mountain passes to beautiful Custer. Lest you think I am a snot who can't appreciate anything, Not even the great Tushmore, I should tell you that we giggled the whole way home at the Griswaldian ridiculousness of it all. The whole of it is utterly ridiculous - the very idea of carving presidential visages in the side of a steep cliff in the middle of a steep nowhere. And people from all over - mostly not America - drive the nowhere mountain roads to see it. And pay $11 to park. Oh, and it was so much smaller than we had imagined it would be.
Entirely hilarious. The joke is on me, Tushmore. Well played.
Pretty sure that not an hour later, Henry has caught a yucky cold. Wet shirt to blame. And bad parents.
Tomorrow I will tell you all about Custer State Park, which you should visit. And we will explore it more thoroughly. Back now to the waterless camper, which had a bit of a parking challenge today and is scratched and wounded and has ponderosa pine bark pressed in where a light once was. I'll catch you up on the badass Badlands (I had to) in Part II, In Which We Do Cool Educational Stuff and Encounter Troublesome Pine Trees.
We made it in to camp before dark (hey Mountain Time. We are huge fans) and set up in Badlands. This is getting easier each time we do it. However, we seem to have something wrong with the water pump and it sputters and spits bits of water from the faucets and never works. Which is horrible because I am not a flip-flops communal shower house at midnight type. Like some people are. Because some people really love that kind of thing. We may stay at some KOA campgrounds between here and Jackson because I would really love a proper water hookup. This is a mixed bag, KOAs. They're cheesy, tightly packed, and they've got a terrible name - Kampgrounds of America. Kampy. But we can plug a hose into the trailer and have a hot shower without fear of plantar warts.
This is a totally normal fear.
Off to wake the kids. We woke up at 6 and enjoyed coffee and some guitar at 7 while the kids slept in the Grey Goose. I was having trouble committing to a name, but I'm just going with it. I think I will try out several different names here in this blog and see which I most prefer. You can handle that, yes?
They're still sleeping and though I usually follow a strict policy of never waking a sleeping toddler, Stephen is anxious for a hike. I could sit here and just look, because I am terrified of heights. I am especially terrified of heights with small children who do not listen. As we crossed South Dakota, I remembered an episode of Little House on the Prarie where Pa, in a soft tone, says to the girls "Get inside the house, now." And Mary and Laura grab baby Carrie and go into the house while Pa shoots a bear. My children would have argued and "wait just let me finish"-ed and they would have all been et. I'm certain of it. Et, y'all.
Say a Hail Mary for us today that no one falls off a cliff. I know that this isn't really how prayer works, but let's just try that.
All the men here look like the Marlboro man. Maybe not all.
We are trekking through South Dakota, and the landscape is alien. It is both green and desolate. Long stretches of rippling grass, flat for miles, where the road seems like it goes straight on forever, and when I can't see any further, the road glimmers and ends in sky. The sky is huge and clear, brighter blue where it is raining miles ahead. No hint of grey; a conciliatory ocean for the landlocked.
When we passed over the Missouri River, over Lake Francis Clay, suddenly the landscape burst and rocky bottomed, roly green hills popped up all around us. Even the little ones were impressed. Lilly took better pictures than I managed to take. The water was Caribbean blue and very surprising.
Three days in, we have some new car rules.
1. No one may eat something that everyone else is not also eating. Exceptions only for medicine.
2. Yes you do have to go potty. Unbuckle. You are going.
3. No one may ask "how much longer?" We are not annoyed by this question. We are annoyed by the second time you ask it and say "but you SAID an hour two hours ago!"
4. Silent time is strictly enforced, or, we wish it were. The only way we have found to enforce this is by passing out lollipops. Doesn't last long. Right now, we are out of lollipops and on a merged two lane road, under construction, in heavy rain and wind, with five loud kids and one 31' trailer. Be quiet, now. Also there's hail. Stephen swears the wind is blowing at 40 miles an hour.
5. Don't touch Jane.
6. Do not crunch up styrofoam cups. Why would you do this???? Henry, why would you do this??
We are getting near to Badlands and beginning to see all kinds of taxidermy, tacky Wild West types of billboards. "See an 11 ft. elephant!" "Shootin' Range!". "No mean, all keen, no growl, no howl PRARIE DOGS!" Maybe we'll line up for one of those sepia-toned western pics. I hear we ought to be prepared for kitch beyond our wildest imaginings. We chose fairly rustic campsites in hopes of a counterbalance. Tonight, a park inside Badlands with no amenities and roadside spaces but amazing views, and tomorrow, Custer State Park where we hear Bison will roam freely through the campground.
Shorter drive today. We spent the morning at Gage Park in Topeka, which was pretty and probably not quite worth going out of your way for, but we enjoyed it. The kids rode the carousel and train and hung out at the playground with a picnic lunch. Then off for the 5+ hour trek to Yukton, South Dakota, to Lewis and Clark Rec Area. Spectacular - I woke up to a view of a lake cut down into enormous sediment rock. Coffee and oatmeal, morning walk to the shell covered beach, and off for lunch into town. Yelp told us that every eatery in town was terrible, so we hit the only five star place around and had ice cream for lunch.
On the way to Lewis and Clark, we passed a Benedictine Monastery and popped inside. Henry was never ever louder anywhere in his life, and the sweet nun inside wondered if we were an hour late for the Mass. We look like the type. Beautiful grounds, beautiful 1930s gothic, and lots of hushing children and one epic nosebleed, then off to Badlands. 6 hours. No big deal.