It Makes a Difference

On Tumblr last week, a post about LGBT marriage popped up on my dashboard. User propharah had written, “Hearing women say ‘my wife’ and men say ‘my husband’ is therapeutic to be honest.” Coincidentally, I stumbled across this post only an hour or so after coming out as my wife’s wife for probably the five hundredth-plus time in our decade of marriage. I’d already been considering a blog post about the morning’s experiences, so when I saw propharah’s note I opened up Word and wrote a quick reply on Tumblr.

Here it is in its entirety—with a few accompanying illustrations, of course, because this is WordPress not Tumblr ffs.

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This morning at our daughter’s swim lessons at the local YMCA, my wife introduced me to an older woman who had just come in: “Sara, this is my wife Kate. Honey, Sara is Aiden’s grandmother.”

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Me and Alex at the YMCA pool

At the word “wife,” the other woman’s head whipped around and she looked between us with an expression that seemed to demand, “Wait, are you joking? Is this a joke?”

Kris and I have been married for eleven years (2005, Western Massachusetts), so it’s not like this reaction was entirely new or even a bit unexpected. Ignoring the stranger’s shocked look, I held out my hand and smiled. “It’s nice to meet you, Sara.”

After a brief pause, she shook my hand and then stared unblinking while my daughter ran over and hugged me. As I leaned down to press a kiss to Alex’s forehead, I found myself replying silently to the unvoiced questions hanging in the air: “Yes, we are married. Yes, this is my daughter, too. Yes, we are a family.”

Eventually Aiden’s grandmother recovered her equilibrium and we all sat down and chatted for the next thirty minutes as if that awkward moment had never happened. When I made an offhand comment toward the end of the conversation about Alex having two moms, Sara only nodded and kept right on, her deer-in-the-headlights days apparently behind her.

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Alex, Aiden, and the rest in the shallow end

Later, as I left the Y and headed to work, I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that we were probably the first legally married women this 65-year-old retired widow with two sons and three grandsons (I might have unearthed her life story in the course of a single swim lesson; it’s what writers do) had ever met. Or, at least, the first women who had ever called each other “wives” so easily, so proudly in her presence. Stonewall happened only a few years before I was born, but it happened after Sara became a wife and mother. She had lived through a sea change for LGBT Americans, even if she wasn’t aware of most of those changes.

As I drove toward campus, I also realized what a difference it made to me to be able to meet this straight woman on equal footing; to discuss my family with the weight of legal and governmental, if not cultural, support behind me. When we talked about the simultaneous joy and deep-seated exhaustion that comes with looking after small children, it was as fellow mothers–even though I am not biologically related to my children. When I offered condolences on the recent loss of her husband, it was as a fellow wife who, unfortunately, would someday likely either be in her shoes or be the one to leave my own wife in that position.

Being equal in the eyes of the law makes a difference to me, and it makes a difference to my wife and our daughters, and it makes a difference to all of our friends and family members. It also makes a difference to the myriad strangers we encounter on a daily basis: to those who do double-takes when we use the term “my wife;” to those who silently revolt at our constitutional right to do so; maybe especially to those who inwardly cheer and feel a little bit better about their own lives, their own possibilities, their own futures.

Absolutely, it makes a difference.

Soccer-family

A couple of married (to each other) soccer moms and our kids

Posted in gay marriage, LGBT rights, Non-Biological Motherhood | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

New Book Out: Training Ground, book one in the Girls of Summer series

As some of you know, I just released my newest novel, Training Ground, from my imprint Second Growth Books. The ebook is currently on sale for $2.99 and has already made Amazon’s bestseller list for lesbian fiction. (Woo hoo!) Amazon is also currently offering the paperback at a discounted price of $9. In a few days, I’ll post information about a Goodreads Giveaway for a chance to win a signed paperback copy.

So here’s the skinny on this book: Training Ground is the first in a series about women’s soccer (football) players, inspired by my ridiculous fangirling over the US women’s national team after last year’s World Cup. Think of the series as USWNT fanfiction with original characters, written by a traditionally- & indie-published lesfic author.

The blurb from the back cover is below. If any reviewers would like a review copy, please contact me at katechristie8 at gmail.com. For an excerpt and purchase options, visit the book page on my website or pop on over to Amazon. Happy reading!

Sometimes a chance meeting can change everything.

At fifteen, Jamie Maxwell’s main goals in life are to make the United States youth national soccer pool, move past the Incident-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and maybe—someday—kiss a girl. When she meets Emma Blakeley at a tournament in Southern California, something about the older girl draws her in. And it isn’t that she expects to ever get the chance to kiss Emma. Really.

When Jamie invites her to sneak out on the last night of Surf Cup, Emma doesn’t go because she likes Jamie’s smile. She goes because, as the daughter of a surgeon and a nurse, she has a genetic predisposition to try to heal people. And Jamie, she can tell, is wounded.

Neither girl suspects that this first last night together will form the basis of a bond that will last across years and miles, from SoCal soccer fields and New York hotels to Portuguese beaches and the streets of Vancouver. But that’s how most friendships begin, isn’t it? With a smile and a nod and the courage to ask, “Do you maybe, possibly, want to come with me?”

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Posted in Lesbian Fiction, Second Growth Books, Women's soccer | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Oh Happy Day(s)

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The day Alex was born

Some people say that the day their child is born is the happiest day of their life. For me, I can honestly say that isn’t the case. The day Alex was born was the day that I found out just how little control I had over the life and death of my wife and the baby she was carrying. The day Alex was born—actually, days because it took 35 freaking hours—I stood helplessly watching the person I loved most, the person I’d chosen to hang my future on, labor to bring into the world a tiny person who seemed intent on not leaving her body. I could only stand there and try to help in my very limited way, such as holding her hand through the worst of the contractions, pushing her hair back from her face, telling her when it was absolutely time to give in and get the effing epidural god damn it, and offering weak sounds of reassurance as she looked up at me with absolute terror when the baby stayed stuck and the contractions slowed and began to come farther apart. There was literally nothing I could do but wait and hope—which, to be honest, are two things I’m not particularly accomplished at.

The second time around, with the twins, Kris’s labor was shorter and the epidural came just in time apparently, but the experience was almost as dizzying for me, the non-pregnant spouse. Kris had a late-term complication that could actually kill the babies if we didn’t induce early, so that was a tad stressful. Add to that the dream I’d had six weeks earlier that one of the babies came out not breathing, plus my flashbacks to the trauma of Alex’s birth, and my nerves were pretty much shot even before labor began. Kris pushed Ellie out easily in only a few minutes, but Sydney was a different matter. When she finally emerged pale and limp and not breathing, I was certain my nightmare was coming true. She recovered quickly and we were told there should be no lasting effects, but, yeah, definitely not the happiest day ever.

Happy

We were pretty happy, to be honest

People also say that their wedding day is the happiest day of their life. While this one I can get behind a little more, a wedding is still an event with an alarming ability to spin out of control. What if your partner gets cold feet and doesn’t show up (which happens in more movies and TV shows than anyone about to get married really needs to think about)? What if a family member gets drunk and makes a scene? In my case, I was too nervous beforehand for it to qualify as the happiest day, although it was definitely the happiest event of my life: all those people coming to Western Mass to celebrate us, to toast to our love and what we hoped would be a lasting commitment. And the dancing—you haven’t lived until you’ve seen your drunk college friends scream in unison with your new wife’s equally drunk cousins, “Oh Mickey you’re so fine you’re so fine you blow my mind yeah Mickey!”

Honestly, though, in my less than humble opinion, the best day of someone’s life most likely sneaks up on them, and maybe they realize it at the time and maybe they don’t. To my mind, the happiest day story goes something like this:

One Sunday morning five years after your first child is born, you wake up at a not ungodly hour to a perfectly quiet house and the faint sound of birds beginning their morning songs. You try to go back to sleep, but soon you give up and reach for the book on the bedside table. With light filtering through the narrow spaces in the blinds, you remember why reading is one of your very favorite things as you sink into the life of the book.

Eventually, though, as the sunlight intensifies and the birds begin to sing louder and the neighborhood starts to wake up, you’re brought back to your own existence by soft footsteps and a small face smiling at you over the edge of the bed.

“Can I come up?” the little person asks.

“Of course,” you say, smiling back.

You pat the space next to you and watch as the munchkin crawls up and snuggles under the covers, her tiny body warm against your side. Then, if you’re lucky, another small face appears, and then another. Soon you are sandwiched by small people and, if you’re especially lucky, a happy dog that lays at your feet, tail thumping lazily against the comforter on the bed that you and your wife picked out shortly after you got married. You chose a king because of your mutual dream of one day spending lazy Sunday mornings reading in bed and snuggling with your children and dogs.

And you realize that this. This right here. In this moment, you are so happy that your heart grows at least two sizes and tears prick your eyes and you hug your kids closer, kissing the tops of their tiny heads while they giggle up at you, so accustomed to your sappiness that it doesn’t faze them in the least. (It’s possible they even enjoy it.)

And because you are happy and because you know you are just so, so lucky to have even a single moment like this one, you gaze across the multiple tiny heads crowding your bed and look into the sleepy eyes of the woman you once watched in terror, afraid that your entire existence was about to come crashing down and that there was absolutely nothing you could do about any of it. But it didn’t. Instead, this woman you have known for decades and loved for so many years pushed through the pain and the fear and the anxiety to give you not just one beautiful, perfect child but three.

And you smile because you know that this is the happiest day of your life. You smile because if you’re lucky, there will be more mornings like this and your heart will just keep growing. You smile because you know that you are truly, especially lucky.

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Posted in gay marriage, Non-Biological Motherhood, Parenting, Twins | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

10 Things to Know about Parenting Multiples

Or, How I Learned to Occasionally Dislike Parenting—Like, Really, Really Intensely

When Alex was a baby and Kris and I both worked part-time and got plenty of quality time with her, I remember reading a parenting post about how it’s okay to not enjoy some parts of parenting. I don’t remember the specific examples the blogger used, but they definitely involved trying to parent multiple small children capable of speaking, running, hitting, and kicking, but not of dealing with their own borderline psychotic toddler emotions.

Alex hadn’t learned to walk or talk yet at that point, and Kris’s RA was still responding to treatment. Life seemed so sweet for our family of three that I shook my head in pity for that poor mom who either lacked time management skills or perhaps had had children before she was really ready. Four years and two additional children later, I finally understand what that other mother was talking about. Thus I would like to publicly apologize for my smug forty-year-old self, and also to confirm as many have done before me that karma is, indeed, a bitch.

What follows is a list of realities about parenting multiple small children that Kris and I have learned since the twins were born. If you’re currently eating, you might want to wait until you’re done to read on. If you’re considering having a baby or a second child, you might want to avoid reading on at all. Just saying.

  1. There will be poop. Lots of poop. Perhaps literally a ton of poop if you have enough babies. Newborn poop will squirt out of your child’s butt at one in the morning, hit a nearby window, and proceed to drip slowly down the glass as you laugh hysterically. In her toddler years, your child will remove her diaper, look inside, and yell, “Oh no, there’s poop in it!” as she waves said diaper over her head. If you have a baby boy, he will also piss on you every chance he gets. But don’t worry. Urine is sterile!
  2. You will be sick all the time—all of you!—and not in the ways to which you might be accustomed. One day, your children’s eyes will decide to hock loogies. This is called pink eye. Look it up on the internet and then wish you hadn’t. You will wash your hands until they crack and bleed, but to no avail. One morning you will wake up and find that your eyes, too, are glued shut. You can hear your sick children crying but you can’t see them very well. Which, after all, might be a blessing.
  3. You will use up all your sick leave taking care of said children. When you inevitably succumb to the sickness of the month, you will use up your vacation leave. This unhealthy cycle ensures that you will be chronically short of vacation time at a point in your life when you need it the most.
  4. You will spend years of your life kneeling on the floor to help with socks and winter caps, tie shoe laces, zip jackets, and change diapers.
    4a. Parenting will destroy your body. In addition to being chronically short on sleep and chronically congested (there might be a cause-effect relationship between these two…), you may find that your knees, ankles, and back creak at odd moments and refuse to bend at all by the time your children are school-aged.
  5. You will find yourself repeating the same phrases, over and over and over and… Phrases like, “Don’t touch that!” “The tag goes in back.” “No, other foot. I said, other foot!” “Bring my shoes back—now.” “Put my sunglasses down.” “God damn it, [insert child’s name]!” And, “I’m sorry I got impatient with you.” Because when you repeat the same things over and over and the outcome still doesn’t change, you will become impatient. Unless you are a saint. And even then you will lose your patience.
    5a. You will buy lots of sunglasses, cell phone screen protectors, and furniture—because living with multiple small beings who lack impulse control will teach you to recognize the importance of not becoming overly attached to inanimate objects.
  6. Your young children will have no body shame. This is a wonderful thing, except when it extends to your body. Your mother’s helper is going to see you naked. So will your father-in-law. And your neighbors—on both sides. You will learn never to assume that just because you left the baby gate shut AND your bedroom door closed AND the window shades down doesn’t mean that this is still the state of affairs when you wander naked from the master bathroom after your second shower in six days. But don’t worry. Your neighbors are getting used to seeing you naked.
  7. Your young children will have a worse case of the wandering hands than any high school boyfriend ever. Try not to recoil too visibly, and recognize that these episodes present a perfect opportunity to teach your children about the sanctity of other people’s private body parts. Again and again and again… (See # 5 above on repeating yourself.)
  8. If a loved one dies, your young children will remind you of it constantly. For weeks. For months. For years. Just when you think you have moved past the pain, your children will ask to see photos of your loved one. You will comply because you understand that kids need help processing the big things in life. But still. You will cry, and it will hurt.
  9. Your own squeamishness with bodily fluids will fade after years of wiping your children’s butts. This will mostly be an improvement, except on the rare occasion in which you find yourself socializing with other adults. Then your tendency to tell stories regarding projectile poop (see # 1 above) will potentially lose you friends and influence. Not that you’ll care. You’ll be too giddy from your temporary freedom and the glass of wine you unwisely downed on an empty stomach to notice your friends and/or co-workers shying away from you. Fellow parents of small children will stick around, though, clutching their own hastily imbibed booze as they describe the color of the material that came spewing out of their own children’s orifices just the other night.
  10. The accepted way to end one of these lists is to offer up a sentimental “And yet, parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever love!” But I’m sorry. I was up three times last night with assorted small, whiny beings, and right now I just want to post this and veg out with DVRed episodes of Downton Abbey or possibly the 2015 World Cup finals.

I mean, yes, of course I adore my children. Did you read the list? The only thing that would allow someone with an overly sensitive olfactory sense AND a tendency toward vomiting to withstand the rigors of parenting three children under the age of four is, obviously, copious amounts of prescription dru—I mean, copious amounts of unconditional love. While I won’t commence listing their numerous virtues, I will share a recent photo of my three lovelies on a good day.

For now, good night and good luck, as Kris and I used to say to each other every night before turning out the lights. To be honest, we still sometimes do.

Three-Lovelies

Two out of three smiling and looking = good enough

Posted in Family, Parenting, Twins | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Listening Comprehension

Last weekend, Kris and I took the kids for a walk around the neighborhood after being stuck inside for nearly a week with viral conjunctivitis. That’s right, pink eye. Or, as I like to say, “Conjunctivitis: when your eyes decide to start hocking loogies.” Naturally, we were thrilled to finally escape our 1100 square-foot home and the attendant horror of caring for two toddlers and a preschooler whose eyes had developed a disturbing tendency to become glued shut at varying times of the day and night, all while our own eyes were leaking copious amounts of, well, snot.

It was a lovely afternoon, sunny but cool which led to a forest fog, as I like to call it. The setting sun slanted through the trees and haze beautifully, and I snapped picture after picture on my phone, hoping at least one would turn out. My parents gave Alex her first camera for Christmas, so she brought it along, snapping shots along the way, too.

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Hallelujah–no more pink eye! Even the angels wept…

After a nice, slow stroll through the woods and back up the street, we were almost home when our new neighbor appeared in his driveway. Our friend who owns the house in question had recently texted to let us know a middle-aged couple would be renting it out through the winter and spring.

“Hello,” I called out, waving as he neared the top of the driveway. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

Smiling, he crossed the street to chat, and soon Kris and I had introduced ourselves and the kids and pointed out our house. He and his wife had just moved out from Chicago, and when we mentioned that we were transplanted Midwesterners, he told us about the years he had lived in Portage, a suburb of Kalamazoo.

The conversation seemed to be going well when he asked how long we had lived in our house.

“Ten years,” I told him. “We bought it when we moved out from Massachusetts.”

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Like mother like daughter. Except for all the pink.

At this, he tilted his head and looked between us, clearly trying to work something out. “I see. Are you two related, then?”

I stared at him. We had spoken of the kids and the house as “ours” and mentioned moving cross-country together a decade previously. Did he need me to draw a map?

“No,” I said, staring at him a little harder than was probably necessary. “We’re not related. We’re married.”

“We’re married,” Kris echoed for effect, her gaze just as unyielding.

“Oh. Oh,” he said, and faltered a little.

A car approached just then, saving the moment, and all three of the adults made sure that all three children were safely on the side of our sidewalk-less road. Then the conversation resumed, social miscue seemingly forgotten.

Other things like this happen frequently. Medical staff ask which one of us is the mother, as do complete strangers, store employees, and the parents of our kids’ friends. Wait staff routinely seem unaware that we’re a couple even when we’re out to eat together on a Saturday night, all dressed up, just the two of us.

What do I mean they’re unaware? Well, when we went out to dinner a couple of months ago to mark our fifteen-year anniversary, the server who showed us to our table asked us if we wanted separate checks. When I told him we were married and that his question was, frankly, offensive, he backtracked and claimed that he asked all “groups” the same question.

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Fifteen years later…

Right. Totally believable.

After the new-neighbor incident, Kris asked me, “How long do you think it’ll be before the kids start getting upset when people say things like that in front of them?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “They’re growing up with it, so in some ways it’s becoming normalized for them to see our relationship questioned, the same way it’s normal for them to have two moms.”

It didn’t occur to either of us that they might not notice the interaction. Our kids, like most, are sponges. For example, the other day Kris and I were talking about the possible make-up of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) roster for next month’s Olympic qualifying tournament. (Yes, that is exactly the kind of thing we like to talk about while watching the NFL on divisional championship Sundays.) I had just read an article that said only 16 members of the 23-member World Cup roster were available for the Olympics, so naturally we felt compelled to name the missing players.

“Four retired, right?” Kris asked.

“Right.” And we listed them together: “Wambach, Cheney, Boxx, and Chalupny.”

“Plus,” she added, “Amy Rodriguez is pregnant.”

“And Christie Rampone is injured.”

“That leaves one more.” We looked at each other, brows furrowed. “Wait, who else is missing?”

As we stared at each other, mentally scrolling through the 2015 World Cup roster, a small voice piped up. “Megan Rapinoe!” Alex called out, not even looking up from her grilled cheese sandwich.

Of course, Rapinoe, one of our hometown favorites. Kris and I had blocked out her knee injury because neither of us wanted to accept that she wouldn’t be back on the pitch anytime soon. We looked at each other, our eyes aglow with pride—“as if Alex had just won a spelling bee,” Kris would later say.

I glanced at Alex, smiling. “You’re exactly right. And do you know why Rapinoe isn’t playing right now?”

Our four-year-old nodded. “Because she’s injured.”

Kris and I exchanged another glowy smile, eyes practically brimming with tears.

“That’s our girl,” I said. Because she could only be ours.

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Still celebrating the 2015 World Cup win at our house…

The thing is, our kids can identify by sight various members of the USWNT, even the ones who don’t have the same names they do. (Which, I might add, was a complete coincidence. Really.) However, when President Obama recently popped up on our television screen, the girls said, “Who’s that guy?”

Yeah, maybe that’s something we should work on—in a non-Olympic, non-World Cup year, of course. Then again, it is an election year. If our kids think we like to curse at soccer and football refs, just wait until they observe what happens during a Republican debate. On second thought, maybe we’d better hold off on that one. Last thing we want is to hear our girls running around preschool and play group cheerfully dropping the “F” bomb.

Other evidence they listen more than we probably give them credit for? The whole family’s recent brush with pink eye necessitated, naturally, a visit to the pediatrician. The next day, Kris reported that the girls ran a doctor’s clinic in the living room with Alex serving as the doctor and all of their dolls and other creatures doing time as her patients.

In her white doctor’s coat, Alex apparently asked Ellie and Sydney, the “parents” in this scenario (god help their “children”), detailed questions: “Did you notice any eye gunk in Piggy’s eyes, Sydney?”

DrEllie

Toddler doctor in the house

“Um, no.”

“Have you noticed any ear infection in Lily, Ellie?”

“Nope.”

“Should we take her temperature?”

“Yep.”

“I’m going to look in her eyes and listen to her heart.”

“’Kay.”

At one point, Alex asked Ellie, “What’s wrong with Pink Baby?”

“It’s her heart,” Ellie answered solemnly.

“What’s wrong with her heart?”

“It’s broken.”

“That’s okay, Ellie,” Alex said, and reached for her toy stethoscope. “Don’t worry. We can fix it.”

I know, right? So sweet, our girls.

Alex, it turns out, is not only a skilled cardiologist and pediatrician. When Ellie brought out yet another patient, a stuffed yellow lab she’d named Torrey after my parents’ lab who died last year, Alex started in with the usual pediatric questions: “Have you noticed eye gunk? Does she have an ear infection?”

But Ellie stopped her. “Actually, Alex, she’s really a dog.”

“Well, that’s okay, Ellie,” Alex said again, shifting pretend gears with ease. “I’m a vet, too.”

That’s our girl. They’re all our girls, actually. Actually—gee, wonder where they picked up that word?

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Thank You For Not Being Afraid – Part 2

I said Part 1 of this two-part post was going to focus on the good, and yet all I did was talk about nearly dying from hypothermia in the Smoky Mountains; failing at mountaineering in the Grand Tetons; and risking life and lungs in the New River Gorge. I’m getting there, though. The experience I’m about to relate also took place on a mountainside, only this time, it involved Alex, my oldest daughter.

If you’ve watched the Corona video, you probably noticed the incredible scenery that Corona and I routinely traversed during her lifetime:

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Corona and me – Skyline Divide, 2009

One of my favorite pastimes in the world is hiking, and Western Washington offers endless opportunities to visit remote mountain meadows, glacial-fed lakes, and vast snow fields. Sometimes I think I must have been a dog in my last life, given how much I enjoy the type of outdoor activities the average dog does. Part of the reason I wanted to settle here was to raise children who would share my love of the outdoors. And sure enough, from the first couple of weeks she was born, I have packed Alex along on my assorted Pacific Northwestern adventures.

I know I’m saying “me” and “I” a lot, and not “we.” There’s a reason for that. Kris’s rheumatoid arthritis was diagnosed in 2006, and while she was able to bike and swim up until her pregnancy with the twins (2013), running and hiking fell by the wayside a little earlier. And honestly, hiking was always more my thing than Kris’s. Back in Massachusetts, as a college coach of two or three sports (depending on the year), she worked pretty much every Saturday during the academic year. I took to loading Corona in my truck and driving around New England exploring assorted trails. From the Appalachian Trail in Vermont and the wilds of Mount Greylock to the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail and the Holyoke Range just down the road from our house in Western Massachusetts, I went hiking or snowshoeing on my own with Corona most weekends, and trail running most mornings. When we moved here, Kris became a gym manager, which meant a lot of weekend hours and events. The routine I’d developed with Corona stuck, only now we were exploring trails in the Cascade Mountains.

Alex, Corona, and me January 2012

Alex, Corona, and me – January 2012

By the time Alex came along, Corona was ten and beginning to slow down. My early explorations with Alex were local—woods and parks within an hour of our house, mostly. But in the back of my mind, I was planning on bigger hikes sooner rather than later. Then the twins joined the family, Kris’s arthritis worsened, and Corona and Maggie officially reached elderly dog status all pretty much at the same time. Until very recently, our household has been narrowly focused on day-to-day survival, with bodily needs (mostly those of others) occupying the forefront of my mind when I’m not at work—sleeping, eating, bathing, dressing, diapers, and potty training. There hasn’t been much room for anything else, not even exercise (or blogging, obviously). The only travel we’ve done has been local—Portland, Vancouver, the Olympic Peninsula, and the San Juan Islands. In our old life, we flew pretty regularly to different parts of the country or even the world. But in our new life where many days seem to bring some sort of crisis, real or imagined, we are home-bound in a way I’ve never experienced.

One of the challenges in a marriage where one partner is struggling with a chronic disease is learning how to balance needs. Kris used to run more than I did. We played indoor soccer together in Massachusetts and the early days in Washington, and we went running together until both of our bodies made it known that we damn well better not try to run the way we had throughout our twenties and thirties. But in the last couple of months since our new rescue dog, Leila, came to live with us, I’ve been running or hiking with her almost every morning, and I’m getting fit again. The same isn’t true for Kris; we don’t know at this point if it ever will be. So we’re trying to figure out how our new life is going to work—the one where I’m able to hike and run and so are our kids, but she isn’t.

With old dogs and tiny children, I went years without venturing into the mountains for a real hike. A couple of times I bundled Alex up and took her up to Mt. Baker with Corona, but she was too little to do much but pick up rocks:

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Artist Point – September 2012

This year, though, she was finally big enough to go a couple of miles, possibly more. With that in mind, I was determined to take advantage of the brief mountain hiking season. August was going to be my month for exploring, since it’s the perfect time to hike the Cascades and, besides, I have it off each year. But then Maggie got sick in July and died, and I didn’t have the heart, frankly, to do much of anything. Besides, this August we needed to transition the twins into toddler beds and Alex into a twin bed, and probably due in part to the lack of sleep that process engendered I got sick for the last two weeks of the month.

September rolled around and I still hadn’t gone for a hike. Then one Saturday I woke up to bright sunshine and thought, “This is it. This may be my only chance.”

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not known for my filter. Or any degree of subtlety. So as I rose that morning, instead of discussing my longstanding feelings of cabin fever with Kris, I simply announced, “I’m taking Alex to Skyline Divide today, and that’s final.”

Kris wasn’t thrilled with the idea (or it’s possible it was my delivery that caused her reluctance), but her father was visiting and my parents live in the area now, so for the first time ever I didn’t feel guilty about leaving her and the twins behind. Alex was thrilled at the idea of spending an entire day in the mountains, just the two of us, which made me even more determined to seize the day. I knew it was hard for Kris to watch us bustling around getting ready to take off on an adventure she couldn’t begin to share, but she swallowed her disappointment and made Alex’s lunch while I rushed around collecting hiking gear.

Soon Alex, Leila, and I were in my car on our way to the mountains. I was so excited. For the first time since Maggie’s diagnosis, I felt a glimmer of happiness sparking inside. Alex’s happiness was obvious and contagious, and we talked and sang as we drove through the late summer sunshine.

Glacier Ranger Station

Glacier Ranger Station

Before setting out on the Forest Service road that would lead us to the trail head, we stopped at the Glacier Public Service Center. Skyline Divide would be crowded, a ranger told us, but the dirt road should be fine as long as we took it slow. Reassured, I buckled Alex back into her booster seat and set off for nearby Forest Service road #39.

The lower part of the road was fine—a few potholes, but nothing major. We made good time and continued our cheerful conversation as we went. But then, about four miles in, the road began to switchback up a mountainside, and that’s when the fear set in. I hadn’t driven the road since 2009. And, more to the point, not since I became a parent. As the angle of the climb increased, so did the number of ruts. The drop at the edge of the road grew increasingly intense—without any sort of rail or natural barrier, one wrong move would send the car off into space. Two thousand feet of space, to be precise. I drove slowly, barely breathing as I fixated on the fact that the mechanic who had fixed an erroneous engine light a few weeks earlier on my Escape had commented on my soft brakes.

“You really should get those fixed,” he’d said.

“I will,” I’d replied. And I’d meant to. I just hadn’t found the time yet.

I mentioned I’m not good with water. The other thing I’m terrified of? Heights. Add together bad brakes, a difficult road, and the precipitous drop at the road’s edge, and I was almost hyperventilating as I drove us slowly up the mountainside.

The view from the road

The (precipitous) view from the road

And then, nine miles in, I turned a curve and hit a washboard stretch that sent my car nearly sideways on the narrow road. For once we weren’t near a major drop, given the switchback curve we’d just completed, but I knew we would be soon. Suddenly all I could think was how we would still have to come back down this road later, if by some miracle we actually made it to the top.

Why was I risking our lives, again? The view from the top was amazing, but so were plenty of other places in the area that didn’t require ascending a long, dangerous road. Why had I insisted on bringing Alex and Leila with me to a hike I hadn’t done in years? What was I trying to prove? Why couldn’t I just accept that the mountain traversing part of my life might be over, or at least temporarily on hold?

I let the car drift to a crawl and looked at Alex in the rear view mirror. “Hey, bud,” I said, “the road is getting really bad and we still have four more miles to go. I don’t know if we’re going to make it to the trail, sweetie.”

“No, Mimi,” she said immediately. “We’re almost there. We can’t turn around now.”

“But kiddo, I’m not sure this is such a good idea. This road is really dangerous.”

“Just go slow,” she said reasonably. “The ranger said it would be okay if you just go slow. We can’t turn around, Mimi. I really, really want to go hiking.” As I wavered, she moved in for the kill. “It’ll be okay. Pleeease?”

“Oh, all right,” I said, and drove on, my knuckles white.

And she was right. We went slowly, and we were okay. The trail head was packed, and we had to create a parking spot for ourselves just past the trail head. But we had made it. For now, everything was good.

Skyline Divide trail head

Skyline Divide trail head

At the trail head, we shouldered our packs and started hiking. The trail, like the road, was steeper than I’d remembered. Within a half mile, Alex was ready to turn around and head home. So I slung both of our backpacks across my front and carried her on my back for a tenth of a mile or so at a time. It took us two hours to go two miles, but in the end we made it. And as we walked out of the trees and onto the ridge, I knew why I had brought Alex to Skyline Divide. The view was incredible, but so was the sense of accomplishment at hiking on our own feet up to what felt like the top of the world. We had struggled and stretched ourselves out of our individual and mutual comfort zones, and here we were about to take a snack break with Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, and the Twin Sister mountains to keep us company. We had done it, and the pride I felt both for my daughter and myself at achieving the literally lofty goal I’d set for us even before she was born made me feel like I was floating.

Alex, me, Leila, and an unknown canine friend

Alex, me, Leila, and an unknown canine friend – Skyline Divide, 2015

“I’m so proud of you,” I kept telling her as we hung out on the ridge, as we hiked back down, as we drove down the road that wasn’t, as it turned out, nearly as scary it had seemed on the way up. “I’m so proud of you, and I love sharing this with you. This is the best hike ever.”

There’s a lesson here, of course. Fearful situations are everywhere, particularly when we open ourselves to love. If we let it, fear can keep us from experiencing great highs—and great lows, too. Sometimes all we need is a little push to keep going even when the brakes are soft and the road is bad and there’s a precipitous cliff waiting to swallow us up. Or, say, a hole in a river that can suck someone under and spit them out TWO MILES downstream. (Clearly, I’m still not over that one.)

John Muir said it much more eloquently (and, just maybe, more subtly): “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. [P]etty discomforts… are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains. Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness.”

And from the same work: “As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with a video compilation of one of my top five days ever. And given that watching the 2015 World Cup final match live in Vancouver is another one of my top five days, you know I’m serious.

Thank you, Alex, for not being afraid.

 

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Thank You For Not Being Afraid – Part 1

When I began this post weeks ago, Paris hadn’t happened, Chicago hadn’t happened, WWU hadn’t happened, San Bernardino hadn’t happened. I started writing this post because while things in our family have been difficult recently, I am consciously trying not to let the difficulty outweigh the goodness Kris and the girls and I are fortunate enough to share on a daily basis.

But then all of these tragedies began cascading across the planet, some closer to my heart than others, and I stopped writing this post, unable to escape the guilty sense that I should be better able to handle my “first world problems.” Other people were facing terror, violence, and permanent loss, and here I was struggling with not enough sleep, with the chaos of parenting multiples, with my wife’s physical decline, with “having” to spend 35 hours a week at a good day job with excellent benefits instead of being able to write all day every day.

Peace for Paris by Jean Jullien

Peace for Paris by Jean Jullien

Driving our kids to lunch a couple of weeks ago, nearly in tears over the news of yet another mass shooting, Kris and I reminded each other how lucky we are: Our girls are healthy, we have a warm house and clothes, and we don’t have to worry about where our next meal will come from. As we sometimes joke, it pays to be disabled—assuming you’ve worked hard for a decade and a half like Kris did and paid into the system for every one of those fifteen years. Thanks to our Social Security safety net, the loss of Kris’s work income doesn’t mean we have to worry about losing our home. Our marriage is now recognized by the state and federal authorities, so as long as I have a job with good medical benefits, her medication is mostly covered. Which is huge for us—the current treatment costs $15,000 every six months, whether it’s effective or not.

And, unfortunately, the latest round isn’t much more effective than previous treatments. In the past two years, Kris has cycled through three “promising” treatments for her RA, and each has failed. That is the largest single reason I’ve found it more and more difficult to convince my brain that the good moments in our daily lives overshadow the less-than-good ones. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is partly to blame. Chronic illness can lead to chronic stress in both the affected person and family members. Stress in return adversely impacts learning and memory, immune function, and emotional resilience. I’m doing what I can to fight the crush of cortisol—physical activity, meditation, laughter, talk therapy, and acupuncture are all excellent methods to combat stress—but I am not always able to escape my body chemistry. Or the press of world events.

I’m not alone in that failure, obviously. Something Omid Safi, a columnist for the On Being project, wrote shortly after the Paris attacks resonated with me:

“The poem that I turned to was yet again from the amazing Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire:

Natures-peace2

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

“Everywhere, everywhere. Everybody hurts. It hurts everywhere.”

Later in the same post, Safi wrote, “In the afternoon I took my children out for a long, slow walk in the woods. We took time to reflect on the trees, the light, the fallen leaves. In the midst of grief, there is still time to hold a friend’s hand, to hold a beloved in the heart, and go for a gentle stroll.”

That is the impulse I felt when I began writing this post—to write about those moments in the woods, in the sunlight, when I held a loved one’s hand and we reflected on the beauty of the physical world many of us are fortunate enough to still be able to walk through, despite our individual and collective fear.

So here you go. Part one of my focus-on-the-good (or at least, try-to-distract-myself-from-the-bad) post.


MI-1975

Family outdoor time, circa 1975

When I was a kid, my parents would bundle my sister and me into the VW bus or, later, the Ford station wagon, and off we would go on summer camping and hiking adventures. These trips were often weeks-long, as my parents’ teaching/ education jobs came with definite vacation perks. From our central U.S. location we traveled far afield to explore the Northeast, the Southeast, the West, and even the Northwest, with the longest adventure of all a five-week road trip to Alaska the summer before I started eighth grade. Frankly, I can’t imagine five weeks confined in a Ford Escort wagon with two bickering teenagers, but I bow to my parents’ bravery, if not their wisdom.

The summer I turned nine, my dad invited me on an overnight backpacking trip in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. While my sister and mother visited my grandparents in Chattanooga, Tennessee, my dad and I packed up the station wagon and headed out on our own to Cades Cove, an isolated valley near the North Carolina border. Along the way we stopped at a rural gas station where I bought a green and white snapback with the picture of a fish and the words, “Gone fishin’!”

I truly wish I had a photo of my (tomboy) self in that trucker hat to share. Given that I barely took it off for the next year, I’m pretty sure there must be some photo evidence somewhere. But I was a kid pre-digital photography, so this backpacking gem from the following summer’s Wyoming adventure will have to suffice:

Dad & me in Grand Teton NP, 1981

Dad & me in Grand Teton NP, 1981

When we reached Cades Cove, we set out along the Appalachian Trail. Our intended destination was an overnight shelter at Russell Field, not far from another shelter where my father had stayed the previous summer with a couple of teacher friends. The hike to the shelter was just over five miles, with an average elevation gain of 460 feet per mile. In other words, the trail was steep. And rocky. And I was still eight. Not a particularly large eight-year-old, either.

Russell Field Trail by Brian Stansberry

Russell Field Trail (PC: Brian Stansberry)

Since we’d driven in from Chattanooga that day, we didn’t get started until mid-day. By late afternoon along the heavily treed mountain trail, the light had started to fade. By then my father was carrying his pack and mine, both filled to the gills with dinner, breakfast, cooking supplies, sleeping bags, extra shoes, and clothes. We were climbing, climbing, and my dad was getting more and more nervous at the lack of signage on the trail. And then it began to rain. Not a hard rain, just a spattering of drops that managed to find their way through the heavy canopy above us.

My dad stopped walking. “It’s been a while since we saw a trail marker.”

I stopped, too. “Not that long.”

“I don’t know,” he said, looking up the trail and then back in the direction we had come. “It’s getting dark, and now it’s raining, too. If we’re lost, we need to go back. And if we’re going to turn back, we need to do it now.”

I shook my head. “No way. We don’t have to go back, Dad. We’re not lost. Let’s keep going. It can’t be far now.”

Years later he told me he would have turned back if not for me, and we very well might have become lost in the dark, rainy forest. But my confidence in his navigation skills gave him the push he needed to slog onward and upward, still carrying both of our packs. In a short time we were rewarded with an elusive white Appalachian Trail marker, and a little while after that we picked up the scent of wood smoke. We weren’t lost, after all. Around a bend and across a small field lay the Russell Field shelter.

Russell Field Shelter; PC Brian Stansberry

Russell Field Shelter (PC: Brian Stansberry)

Soon we were ducking under a plastic sheet into the stone shelter that had three walls, a massive fireplace, and two rows of sleeping platforms. Three people were already in the shelter, thus the wood smoke scent. We hadn’t even introduced ourselves yet when one of the trio, a woman, turned away from the fire and said, “Wait, I know you.” I assumed she was talking to my father, but her eyes were on me as she said, “You’re Kate Christie, aren’t you?”

Floored does not describe the feeling adequately. We were on a remote mountain six hundred miles from Kalamazoo, and yet the people we ended up sharing the shelter with that night were not only from Kalamazoo, but one of them was a teacher in the Suzuki violin program I had joined a couple of years earlier. What are the odds, right? As an adult, I’ve had a few other coincidental encounters—running into a pair of former college classmates at a Tube station in North London, and seeing the same college friend in Midtown Manhattan twice in two different locations. But somehow, randomly stumbling across acquaintances in the middle of a busy city is less shocking than entering an Adirondack-style shelter in the middle of nowhere and discovering someone who knows your name.

The rest of the camping experience was uneventful, except that I was wearing overalls (and a snapback—I know, right?) and I didn’t quite manage to get the straps out of the way when I went outside that night by myself to pee in the woods. Suffice it to say, I stood with my back to the fire for longer than I might otherwise have done that night, glad for the darkness to hide my embarrassment. The next morning, we said goodbye to our fellow Kalamazooans and headed back down the trail to Cades Cove. By evening, we were in Chattanooga sharing stories of our adventure with the rest of the family, and my dad was shaking his head at the fact that he had been ready to quit and I was the one who insisted we keep going.

The thing is, I hadn’t known to be afraid. If I had had the knowledge he did, I might have agreed with his conservative assessment and we might never have made it to Russell Field. A year later, we were in Wyoming preparing to rappel down a rock face in Grand Teton National Park, and I came face to face with a portion of the fear he must have felt that day when it appeared he might have gotten lost in the Smoky Mountains with his eight-year-old daughter. Just before it was my turn to step backward into nothingness, I looked up at the Exum mountain guide who had taken us out for a day of family mountaineering, and I said, “The rope won’t break, right? I can’t die doing this, right?”

rappelling

Me, about to step into nothingness

I was just looking for a little encouragement to allay my fear. But the guide, whose ten-year-old son was along as his assistant, looked me in the eye and said, “Well, sure it could break. The harness could fail or you could slip and fall. But it’s only twenty-five feet. You would be badly hurt, but you probably wouldn’t die.”

As I digested the guide’s less than reassuring answer, I stood frozen for what felt like an eternity while everyone encouraged me to step backward down the rock face. Finally I shook my head. “I can’t do it. I don’t want to rappel.”

The guide shrugged and untied me, unimpressed but also apparently unsurprised. Girls, I imagined he was thinking as he instructed his son to take me down the trail around the back of the rock face. Humiliated, I followed the mountain goat-like boy. And you know, I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten over the shame of backing out of the culminating moment of our mountaineering lessons. My parents and even my older sister assured me they didn’t think any less of me, but I thought less of myself for giving in to fear.

That feeling of failure in the face of fear was not something that faded easily, either. Fifteen years later, now in my early twenties, I went on a river rafting trip with some friends to the New River Gorge in West Virginia. It was my first such trip, so I didn’t realize what three class V and five class IV rapids combined with a river running high at nine feet above normal meant. Not until we hit a giant hole in the first class V rapid sideways and the raft flipped and I ended up under it did I realize that river rafting was dangerous. Like, seriously, death-defyingly dangerous.

giphy

Fortunately, during the bus ride to the river the guides had told us what to do if we ended up under the raft. As soon as my life jacket sucked me to the surface, I turned my body over in the water so that I was face up with my feet pointing up to the sky (or where I assumed the sky was, anyway), and then I pulled myself along the bottom of the raft to the nearest edge. The raft was briefly stuck in the hole in the middle of the river being pummeled by the current, but I was lucky enough to pull myself out where I could be rescued with relative ease. It just so happened that a bunch of Ohio State football players—gag—were in the convoy behind us. I had barely popped out from under the raft when a giant dude lifted me out of the water by my life jacket and tossed me easily into the bottom of his boat.

My other raft-mates were similarly dispatched within a minute or two. We were saved—except that we still had the rest of the river run to complete: ten more miles of raging whitewater, including multiple class IV and V rapids.

giphy1

Once the football players rescued us and the guides recovered our raft and guided it into an eddy, we gathered on shore to regroup. As the guides discussed the best strategy for the rest of the run, I was unable to focus on much other than the fear pulsing through my brain. I mean, I was UNDER the boat. I was under the BOAT, for f@$%’s sake. I shivered and my knee jumped spasmodically as I mentally rehearsed the words demanding to escape my lips: “No effing way am I getting back in that boat! I am walking back to the bus! Just point me at the road or trail, because I am out of here!”

During the brief pause between decision and declaration, I would like to say that I pictured the Exum guide shrugging at just another girl too scared to step backwards off a mountainside. But I didn’t. I sat there reliving the moment the raft flipped, stranding me under the surface of a river I had (I now realized) been foolish to challenge. The thing is, I’m not a strong swimmer. I don’t like to put my face underwater, like, at all. Inevitably, even in the relative safety of a swimming pool, I take a breath at the wrong moment and end up coughing chlorinated water and snot everywhere. The New River is about as far from the calm of a swimming pool as you can get. After being tossed into the “hole” in the middle of the river and then riding the crest back up and flying out of the upturned raft down, down into the river where the raft crashed on top of me, blocking out the sun—how would I, poor swimmer and generally water-wary woman that I am, ever find the courage to take up my rented paddle again?

Fortunately, though, I did pause, which gave the girl next to me—a friend of a friend whose name I don’t remember but whose shrill voice I can still hear—the chance to declare, tears welling in her eyes, “I can’t get back in that boat. I can’t do it! I won’t! I would rather walk back! You can’t make me get back in!”

The entire group looked at her, me included. Hearing my own fearful thoughts come out of her mouth and hang heavy in the warm air made me realize suddenly that I absolutely did not want to be that woman. I wanted to be strong and brave and courageous. And even if I wasn’t, I was damn well going to pretend to everyone else that I was. Chickening out wasn’t an option. The only option was to keep going and hope that everything would turn out all right.

Oh my effing god, I thought. I have to get back in the raft.

giphy2

“It’ll be okay,” I said to the woman who was somehow even more scared than I was. “We’ll be okay.”

And we were. The guide company quickly reshuffled and gave us a new guide, someone who had been down the river more than twice (!), and a football coach added some weight and heft to our already underweight, under-heft boat. (As a Michigander, I can honestly say that that afternoon on the New River was the only time I’ve ever been happy to see anyone from the Ohio State football team.) I gritted my teeth and clamped down on the shriek of terror trying to work its way out of my mouth, and I tried not to let on how scared I was as we set off down the river. The experienced guide made the rest of the trip seem easy, and by the end we were all disappointed that the adventure was over. Except maybe the woman who had wanted to quit. She was supposed to stay overnight at the campground with the rest of us, but she and her sister got in their car and headed home to Michigan as soon as the bus dropped us off at the rafting company’s base.

That night around the campfire we were informed that the spot on the river where we flipped kills a couple of people every year. The hole we tipped into has a channel that has the potential to suck a person under and spit them out TWO MILES downriver. If I had known that at the time, it would have been like the Exum guide saying to me, “Yeah, you could totally die.” I’m not sure I would have gotten back in the boat, to be honest, even with my fellow chickenshit passenger’s example. But I didn’t know yet about the death trap we’d narrowly escaped, and so I got back in the raft and faced my fear, and everything really did turn out all right. My friends and I were minor celebrities that night—“Dudes, you totally could have died! Did you know your guide had only been down that section of the river TWICE before? It’s a miracle you survived!”—and we felt fully and completely alive the way you do only after facing down possible death and, yes, the deepest of fears.

This post is ridiculously long, so I am going to pause it here. The second part is its own separate post. But for now, I’ll leave you with an awesome video (with an even awesomer soundtrack) that will you give some idea of the conditions on the river the day my friends and I blithely set out on our little rafting adventure.

 

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