A Scene of Changery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday Superpowers (and Superlimitations)

Do you know that feeling of being overtaken by a wave? One moment you’re happily body surfing, watching with curiosity as a wave takes shape and approaches, and the next moment—wham!—you’re underwater, being dragged across the sand by the current. You’re not in any real danger—the water is about two feet deep—but you are sore, and also: embarrassed. You stand up and look around to see if anybody saw that. You wade a little deeper and try to see if it’s possible to discreetly tug at your bathing suit and rinse some of the sand from your craw.

Dear Reader, that’s exactly what the second half of April has felt like. Here’s my best attempt to break it down.

  1. I caught a cold and tried to ignore it. We had a lot going on (see #2) and so I told myself this illness would take care of itself. I continued to eat cheese, drink wine, to miss hours of sleep, to live as if I were feeling fine. And when, after a full week of this, the cold turned into asthma and irrepressible coughing, I just bumped up the dose on my inhalers, and waited for the meds to kick in. But that didn’t work either. Gradually, over the course of the second week, my asthma got worse, not better. I woke every morning coughing and gasping for air. The inhalers took the edge off, but they didn’t pull me out of illness. It turned out I needed a doctor, and Prednisone, and rest.
  1. Kellie and I found a spacious mid-century house priced at the very upper edge of our price range. We’ve been on the fence about buying a house for years. We both want more space—we want things like a big room where the kids can mess everything up and be crazy loud and we can close the door—but the thought of a bigger mortgage makes us both tremble in our boots a little bit. We kept making decisions and then doubting those decisions; we took turns staying up all night; I spent an hour on the phone with a mortgage broker, and hours at the kitchen table with a pen and scrap paper and a calculator. Kellie and I kept calling each other at random moments during the workday to re-discuss the finer points until finally we decided to GO FOR IT!—and then, once again, we second-guessed ourselves. After hours of further discussion, we made an offer, and were amazed at how peaceful we finally felt. We went to sleep imagining our family spreading out in a house with two floors.

 And then the next day we learned that we’d been outbid.

  1. I had an essay go live that I was excited to share with the world—and within an hour of its release, I just wanted to hide beneath my covers. The essay was about the exhaustive decision-making process I went through with Kellie when deciding to have our first child. (See similar decision-making process as represented in #2 above. This is how we roll.) For a couple to negotiate different views on having kids struck me as a normal phenomenon, and it just plain never occurred to me that someone would read about that experience and judge me.

But twenty minutes after my essay went live, a commenter accused me of being emotionally abusive to Kellie, of coercing her into having a child. A whole thread of comments followed debating my character—was I totally reprehensible, or just a little bit manipulative? This was the real sneaker wave of April. I hadn’t predicted this reaction, nor could I have anticipated how totally raw and exposed a bunch of online commenters would make me feel.

To make things worse, the website where the essay appeared was set up to email me a notification every time someone commented. Throughout the day, I’d check my email and my heart would race each time I saw a comment notification. I held my breath and clicked on it, wondering what awful conclusions the most recent readers had drawn about me. It felt kind of like this:

Film: Repulsion, 1965
Film: Repulsion, 1965
  1. Two days after the comments fiasco unfolded, my car started rattling. It began a half a block away from my house as I was preparing to drop off my kids and continue on to work. Though the rattling was undeniable, I tried for a moment to pretend it wasn’t happening. I asked myself if maybe I could possibly just keep driving to work?

The answer was no. Within the next half block, the rattling got progressively worse, and I parked on the side of the road to investigate. Was my car about to explode? Or maybe it was something simple—was my muffler dragging on the ground? No, but my front right tire was completely flat.

Kellie had forgotten her cell phone that day, so I was on my own. I left the car where I parked it and walked the kids a mile to the bus terminal downtown. This involved alternately corralling Stump and carrying him against his will.

Later that evening, Kellie replaced the flat tire and as she lowered the body of the car back down over the brand new wheel, it slowly became clear to us that the spare was flat too. I filled it with my bike pump and drove it directly to Les Schwab—which had closed. I left it to sit and deflate overnight.

  1. When I came home the next day from picking up my car with brand new front tires, this had happened:

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Actually, this one just turned out to be a cosmic joke. When Kellie came home, she fixed it in twenty minutes.

 While all of this has been going on, Stump has been cultivating a superhero alter-ego. He’s reached that stage in life where he wants to be—needs to be—a superhero all of the time. He wants to wear armbands day and night, and won’t take them off for the bath. He wants to wear a cape over his t-shirt. To Stump, this isn’t about wearing a costume; he’s claiming his personal style.

superheroIn the midst of a sleepless night last week (see #2 & #3) I realized that this was exactly the way that I needed to see myself, that even though I’d hit a point where I felt tired and wounded and embarrassed and tired again, I needed to put on my armbands, put a cape on over my work clothes, cultivate my everyday superpowers, and surrender to my superlimitations. It was two in the morning at that point, and as I lay there I took stock:

Superpower: My body can heal itself.

Superlimitation: I actually have to slow down and help it.

Superpower: I am capable of radical oversharing. Lately, the more I write, the more it seems like this craft is about discovering the most revealing, vulnerable thing that I am capable of saying and then saying it.

Superlimitation: I am completely unable to control or even predict how that writing will be received.

Superpower-limitation: I’m the only one who can save me. On the morning of my flat tire, I called Kellie’s work office to tell her about the problem. “I can’t get a hold of her until the afternoon,” he co-worker explained. “That’s fine,” I told him. “I made it to work already.” “Oh, so you don’t need rescuing?” he clarified. When I got off the phone, I realized how badly I’d wanted rescuing all week. I wanted someone to make my asthma go away, to get rid of those critical commenters, to wave a magic wand and give me a new house that suited all our family needs without a mortgage. But at the end of the day, it’s just me in my sweaty human clothes lifting my fists to the sky like Superman, trying to up-up-and-away myself.