My Life Is An Open Book

“You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare.” ~Georgia O’Keefe

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I recently had a novel idea. Not an idea for a potential novel, but the notion that I had more or less already written one. I began blogging in 2009 when our sons were 6 and 8 and I could cobble together enough minutes in a day to return to writing. I kept handwritten journals for decades, but when we had the boys that fell to the wayside along with exercise and sleep. For years, a nagging voice in the back of my head has told me I should write a book. My frontal lobe, however, had predetermined I had neither the time nor the talent to undertake the endeavor.

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in bed with Steve at the end of another long day, doing a verbal dump about a writing group I was joining. I was, as usual, doubting myself. What made me think I had anything to contribute in a writing group? So many people call themselves writers. The title seems meaningless and arbitrary. I haven’t been paid to write in almost 18 years. I had the sense I would be out of my league in any writing group, and I said as much to Steve.

“It feels weird to call myself a writer. It sounds pretentious. Seriously. What have I written?” I whined.

“What about your blog posts?” Steve asked.

“What about them? That’s a hobby,” I dismissed.

“How long have you been writing your blog?” 

I had to think about that for a minute. I’ve had several blog sites. My first posts were on a blog I called Suburban Sirens, both referring to the sirens beckoning me back to writing a the time and the sirens I fully expected to hear in our suburb as the mental hospital ambulance arrived to take me away.

“Looks like I started in late summer of 2009,” I said, perusing the posts on that original blog.

“How many posts do you think you have written since you started?” he continued.

Another good question. I visited all four sites where I kept posts and checked for post counts. I did the math.

“It looks like it’s a little under 700,” I answered.

I let that sink in for a minute. Had I really written 700 short essays? Holy crap. A bold idea crept into my head, so I threw it out into the world.

“I should print them out so I have them somewhere other than online,” I said mostly to myself. “It would be fun to go through them and see where I’ve been and where I am now.”

“You should do it,” came the response from my ever-supportive spouse.

The negative thoughts snuck in.

“That would be a lot of money in paper, notebooks, and printer ink. And what would I even do with them? It’s not like anyone is going to sit around and read them. They will just sit on a shelf. What’s the point?” 

I’m back in therapy. One of the things I am working on is believing I am worth the effort. I am worth showing up for. I am worth asking for what I want, and I am worth not accepting less than what matters to me. I am worth taking a risk on. Wouldn’t printing out my blogs be a step in that direction? How bad is it if I think my own writing efforts aren’t worth the expenditure of time or money? Am I really worth so little? Perhaps growing my self-esteem begins with the simple act of cherishing my own thoughts enough to decide they are worth the money. No further justification necessary.

So, I bought a ream of paper, a few three-ring binders, and some page protectors, and I began the mundane task of copying, pasting, formatting, and printing each of my posts. It’s been an eye-opening endeavor. It’s allowed me to relive my experiences as the mother of young sons. I’ve been able to recollect some events I had long forgotten, and it’s been fun sharing these with my husband and my sons. It’s also afforded me the opportunity to witness my own growth. Like going back and reading my journals from junior high and high school, I’m seeing who I was and how far I have progressed. It’s been good for me on many levels, mostly in validating the hard work I’ve done both in parenting sons and writing reflections about my life. Some posts made me utter, “Wow…that was pretty good.” Those moments caught me off guard. I wouldn’t have owned that two years ago. Progress!

I’ve done a little more math since and determined I have written roughly 519,750 words about my life since 2009. An average book chapter is around 4,000 words. This means I have created what equates to approximately 130 book chapters. I guess it’s time to stop believing I don’t have the energy or time to write a book. I’ll also have to stop believing I have nothing to contribute.

By turning my life into an open book, I may have inadvertently written one or two.

Decades Deconstructed

As a child, sitting on a wooden bench in a stained-glass Catholic church, perusing bible stories in miniature cardboard books while a priest spoke, feet unable to reach the floor, a good girl in a handmade dress, told to be seen but not heard

As a teenager, walking the locker-lined hallways in torn jeans and strange hair, avoiding eye contact to sidestep conversation, feeling unsure, awkward, and unknowable, safe in anonymity despite the enormous hoop earrings that suggested a bolder soul underneath

As a young adult, still sleeping in my childhood bed, writing graduate papers nightly and disappearing into a padded cubicle by day, flying just under the radar, laboring as if work provides life’s meaning, another spinning cog in capitalist machinery, lost in the system

As a new mother, negotiating a role I wasn’t equipped for, giving baths, wiping behinds, washing laundry, an introvert quietly sitting at playgroup, an imposter among women with better small-people skills, playing house, unpaid, unsure, selfless and without self

As a midlife puppet, enduring hormonal shifts and parent/teacher conferences, encouraging my little people, becoming braver as they do, beginning self-excavation through adventure, a glimmer of light suggests the unabashed me might yet exist underneath the rubble of other’s expectations

As a member of the over-the-hill gang, black balloons behind me, forward looking only, relishing every minute and rolling in each emotion, denying those who would bury me again, living fully knowing others have already gone, working at not accepting less for myself, acknowledging my inherent self-worth at last, a phoenix

 

Maybe I’ll Come Back As A Tree

IMG_6482This week has been another lesson in the first Buddhist Noble Truth…life is suffering. Last Saturday we learned that we lost a friend unexpectedly and far too young. I was barely at acceptance of that heartbreaking reality check when the shooting at the STEM school happened, directly affecting several friends with children who attend that school. Of course, this came less than a month since the day that all Denver-area students were forced to stay home when a woman flew to Colorado and purchased a pump-action shotgun with the intention of carrying out a Columbine-style mass shooting as our community was preparing for the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, which also directly affected people I know. And then yesterday I spent part of my day at a memorial service and reception for a family member. The precariousness of life, and our need to live in the now (and hopefully zen) moment, pervaded my every thought this week.

This week also precipitated meaningful conversations between my husband and I. We’ve discussed additional life insurance, funeral plans, urns, wills, and making the most of our time on this rotating sphere. He and I are on the same page about most things in life, and this holds true with our thoughts about death. We don’t want to be buried or have our ashes stored in a box or decorative vase in someone’s home. We don’t want a traditional funeral.

Yesterday we were in the car on our way to the interment when we started discussing urns.

“I think I will get a crazy, fun urn for my ashes, like Carrie Fisher did.”

In case you weren’t aware, Carrie Fisher had her ashes placed in a large, Prozac-pill-shaped urn. Cheeky and appropriate for her, I admired her bold choice.

“Maybe I will make a box for my ashes? It will give me a reason to learn tongue-in-groove joints,” Steve mused.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like the guys at the woodworking awards on the Parks and Rec episode who were pictured in memoriam with the caskets they built for themselves.”

“Exaaaaactly,” Steve replied.

“I just don’t want you guys spending money on an urn I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I need to find something that suits me that you can carry me around in until you dump me wherever you decide to unload me. If you keep me around the house, I will come back and haunt you, I swear.”

Later, a friend told us he plans to be put in a Cafe du Monde chickory coffee can. Seems perfectly reasonable and cost effective to me.

This morning, morbid as it sounds, I did a search for funeral urns. Actually, the Google search entry was “crazy fun funeral urns,” and it turns out I wasn’t the first person to search those terms, which gives me hope that I am not the only weirdo out there.

One of the results from the search was for this biodegradable urn by Bios. This urn has a place to hold ashes and then a separate area with a tree seed and the medium to grow said seed. While not particularly crazy or fun, this urn does something more important than hold ashes. This urn gives back. It creates something from nothing, life from death. And it leaves no waste. That’s a win/win in my book. Reflecting on my personality, wishes, and thoughts about death and the circle of life, this might be the most suitable urn for me.

Oddly enough, this search for urns has brought me a measure of peace in an otherwise emotionally difficult week. I told Steve he is not to hold a funeral or memorial service for me, but if he and the boys would like to host a party in my honor that would be marvelous. Hopefully it would involve friends, family, flowers (no lilies, please), food (none of it gluten free), and include a toast to my memory carried out with a Polish vodka shot for all. Now that I’ve shared this here, you’re all honor bound to ensure he carries out my wishes.

Life is suffering. There is physical and emotional pain, aging, and death. Yes. This week has been rough, but that’s what life is, a struggle to grow and persevere despite the inevitable, to leave a mark no matter how ephemeral. I think I will buy one of these urns. There’s something about going to seed that germinates hope where sadness once took root. Maybe someday I’ll come back as a tree, reaching for the sun, stubbornly continuing my growth.

Last Full Day in Tanzania

IMG_6886 2On our last morning in Tanzania, we were greeted with another beautiful day, blue sky dotted with light clouds. We cleared out of our luxury tents and once again met Ammy at the Land Cruiser. It’s safe to say that we were not looking forward to the upcoming twenty-four hours of travel. We were all struggling with the notion that this awe-inspiring trip was over. And we were not ready to say goodbye to Ammy or the creatures we’d become accustomed to seeing over the previous week. I was emotional as we began our drive away from Lake Masek and tried to focus on seeing as much as I could before I could see it no longer.

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Fast food of the savanna

One of the most commonly sighted animals in the savanna is the impala. We had seen so many of them on our trip in large herds grazing among the bushes and trees, and on this morning they showed up for us again. On our first day on safari, Ammy pointed out that on their hindquarters there is a dark “M” shape. He told us that the impala are the McDonald’s meal for the leopards, literal fast food. We never did see a leopard on our trip, which means we will have to return and try again.

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Dik-dik seeing us off

As we drove slowly one last time through the area, we had our eyes peeled for dik-diks. They were the one creature we decided we had to see one last time. They must have realized this because they showed up for us. I think we saw six to eight of them before we hit the small airstrip nearby where we would catch our bush plane headed to Arusha.

The Ndutu air strip is what you imagine it would be…a long stretch of gravel where bush planes come and go every hour. When we packed for Africa, the one guideline we were given was to pack light because the bush planes have a strict weight limit. When we saw the planes, it made sense.

i-zKNk6Br-XLEventually it was time to say goodbye to Ammy. I struggled to hold the tears back. There are no words to describe what a wonderful guide and person Ammy is. He was so patient with our non-stop questions. His expertise, warmth, and kindness made our trip. One thing that happened repeatedly on the trip is that we would ask a question that we more or less were guessing at an answer for. If we were guessing right, Ammy would respond in his lovely Tanzanian accent, “Exaaaaactly.”  Five months later, Steve and I are still walking around our house now saying that word as if we are Ammy. His big heart and smile made a deep indentation in our hearts.

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Best. Guide. Ever.

I think all but two of us were a bit concerned about the bush plane flight. Our oldest had flown on a similar plane in Sri Lanka six months earlier, so he was trying to make us all feel okay about it. I’d never flown on an aircraft this small before, and I’d never taken off from a dirt runway. I captured this photo of my sister-in-law quite by accident, but it pretty much summarizes how we were all feeling as we were preparing to take off.

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Are we really doing this? 

Of course, airlines around the world operate small flights like this one daily without incident and everything was fine. It was something else, though, being in such a small plane and flying over the expanse of Tanzania. We flew over the crater on our way to Arusha, and it was humbling to see it from the air.

IMG_6926Once we were safely back in Arusha, our Deeper Africa driver took us to the Cultural Heritage Center before taking us back to Onsea House for an opportunity to have lunch, shower, and nap before our long trip back home. The Cultural Heritage Center was filled with creations by local artists, most of it for sale. There were some amazing treasures.

Exhausted and overwhelmed after such an incredible trip, we had our lunch on the terrace and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing before our trip to Kilimanjaro Airport. Joe took a dip in the pool. The rest of us showered after our dusty morning and repacked the best we could. Luke took the opportunity to be in the moment.

IMG_6960When our ride to the airport arrived, we sucked it up and headed for the van with all our belongings and the treasures we’d collected along our journey. While Luke was ready to return home and get back to his own room, Joe, our world traveler, did not want to leave. I had to agree. In the end, we were able to pry Joe from the railing on the condition that we agreed to return. Joe and I mused on the way to the airport that perhaps our next trip back would be to climb Kilimanjaro, as has always been my dream and is now his.

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Dragged kicking and screaming from Africa

When we had arrived in Tanzania, it was dark. We hadn’t been able to see Kilimanjaro. It was not visible when we headed towards our safari either. Sunset was approaching and we told the driver we hoped we would see Kilimanjaro. He told us it is often not visible because of clouds and air quality. Someone was looking out for me, though. As we got closer, the driver told us we were in luck. Off to the left side of the van, the mountain was visible. We all craned our heads to see it. I teared up yet again. The silly mountain took my breath away. Damn, Africa. You’re killing me.

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Barely enough clarity or light for this photo, but still here it is

The driver stopped for us so we could take blurry and barely adequate photos in the waning light. Joe posed in front of it, an action he told me cemented his intention to return and summit it someday. It’s hard to describe how the sight of that mountain touched me. Sitting here with my laptop, I am overcome with the memory of my first glance at that peak. If I am never afforded the opportunity to follow my dream to climb it, I am forever grateful for the chance I had to see it rise above the clouds.

We arrived at the airport, filled out all the necessary forms, and made our way back onto a sizable aircraft that would fly us to Amsterdam for our return flights across the Atlantic and finally home to Denver. With full hearts, we said so long to Tanzania. Until next time….

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Wildebeest Migration – Tanzania

On our last full safari day, we had a singular goal. We were going to spend some time observing the migration. By this time on the trip, the thought of spending hours in the Land Cruiser was becoming less shiny and new. We adored seeing the animals, but we were growing weary of bouncing along the dusty plains. If our trip had been longer, we might have spent the day relaxing around camp instead, but we had one full day left and we weren’t going to squander it because our tushies were tired. After breakfast, we loaded up and headed out.IMG_6824We had to drive for a while, away from the lakes and the hill area, back onto the plains. Eventually, on the horizon we began to make something out, a line of marching creatures. Ammy told us that the wildebeest often travel single file because otherwise they would trample all their grazing land. And, sure enough, all over the plains we witnessed narrow animal trails leading to open land filled with fresh grasses where individuals would separate and graze. We cruised closer to them, causing some of them to run as they crossed in front of us, not wanting to break with their herd or be left behind. Video here. 

Wildebeest and zebra travel together. The wildebeest are great at finding water but their eyesight is poor, which leaves them vulnerable to predators. Zebras have great eyesight for spotting danger, but aren’t so adept at finding the water they need every day or two for survival. So these two creatures work together. Too bad groups of humans can’t figure out how better to work together for mutual benefit.

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Wildebeest and zebra…like peanut butter and jelly

I am known in my family for making animal noises when I see that animal. I blame it on the Fisher-Price See ‘n Say toy I had as a child. Because of it, I moo with greater frequency than most people. I am also the annoying person who ends up mimicking someone’s accent quite unintentionally. So imagine my glee when I realized that wildebeest sound similar to cattle but with a slightly different accent. When we would park to observe the wildebeest eating and playing, I would have to make gnu sounds to see if they would gnu back. They usually would. Here’s one time when my gnuing got them going…enjoy the sounds of the wildebeest.

After a lot of driving around (chasing a migration is a lot of work), we landed back at the camp for lunch. We discussed how we wanted to spend our last afternoon on safari. Half of our party decided they wanted to relax and unwind, and who could blame them after 8 days in a Land Cruiser? Steve, the boys, and I decided, however, that we had serious fear of missing out, so Ammy graciously took the four of us out for one last game drive.

We had in mind a trip to Lake Ndutu to see the flamingos so we started to head there and first happened upon a giraffe trying to get a drink, its crazy long legs making the simple task an exercise in grace and flexibility.

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Curtsey to get a drink

Eventually we made our way to Lake Ndutu to see the flamingos we’d not been able to photograph the day before on our way in. Lake Ndutu is a saltwater lake filled with briny shrimp on which both greater and lesser flamingos dine. There were many flamingos that day, but most were not close enough to photograph. Even when you can capture them, they are not the most helpful of subjects, their heads dipping under the water to feed.

IMG_6862 2As we were wrapping up our drive and heading back to our camp, Ammy drove us closer to the shore of Lake Masek where we were staying. Some wildebeest had been attempting to cross the lake the previous day. Most made it. Some were not successful, and their carcasses washed up near the shore opposite where they began their crossing. Along the shoreline, it was The Lion King all over again as we got to witness the end of the circle of life. Scavengers were doing their job, dining on the wildebeests who hadn’t survived their crossing. There were vultures and hyenas and those crazy marabou storks I mentioned in my last post. Did you know there are carrion storks? I didn’t. As my sister-in-law pointed out, that kind of puts a different spin on the whole idea of having a stork deliver a baby. It seems that could end badly. Still, the storks provide a necessary service. In the US, we might see an area where animals are repeatedly dying and think, “Whoa! We need to fix this.” In Tanzania, they choose to allow nature to do what nature does naturally. It makes sense. I think about the massive overpopulation of deer in some of our northern states, an overpopulation that now results in an appalling number of deer versus automobile accidents. Deer overpopulation occurs when you eliminate their natural predators, natural predators humans eradicated because they also occasionally gnawed on livestock. We interrupted the natural order to solve one problem and inadvertently caused another. Mess with Mother Nature and inevitably she will mess with you.

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Marabou storks

Ahead of us on the road where we were watching the vultures, storks, and hyenas at the all-you-can-eat wildebeest buffet, one hyena laid down to rest in the afternoon shade. Something about the way she was positioned, head on her paws, eyes barely able to remain open, reminded me of our dog. I decided that people who don’t like hyenas are people who don’t get hyenas. They’re actually quite likable once you get to know them.

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Spot

We called it a wrap on our day and returned to camp disappointed that our safari was over but grateful for the opportunities we’d had. We got cleaned up and headed to the dining area for drinks and one last dinner with Ammy. We would miss him too. I wasn’t looking forward to saying goodbye to any of Tanzania, landscape, animals, or people.

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Africa family portrait

That night, as I curled up one last time under the mosquito netting we had grown accustomed to, we were once again serenaded by the hyenas. I had to wonder if one of them was the little lady we saw waiting on the road. In the morning we would pack up and head back to Arusha and then finally return to Kilimanjaro International Airport for our flight home. I didn’t want to leave, but the thought of perhaps at last catching a glimpse of Kilimanjaro gave me something positive on which to focus as I drifted off.

 

 

Onward From The Serengeti To Lake Masek

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On the road again

All good things must come to an end, and so it was with our time on the Serengeti. As our trip began to wind down, the reality of leaving Tanzania in a few days time began to weigh heavy on my heart. An African safari, like a trip to the Galapagos, is one of those things people call a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The sad truth of it is, though, that I had left the Galapagos wanting to return, and the same thing was feeling true of Africa. Still, we had two days of exploration left, so I tried to shut it out of my brain and live in the moment.

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I can’t decide if it’s their tiny ears, they dark eyes, or the face markings that get me

On our way out of the park, we stopped to watch our cheetah friends one last time. The momma in me stood in solidarity with this momma and recognized the hard work she had done to raise these four cubs. Cheetahs have a tough go of it on the Serengeti. While they are fast, they are not as formidable as other big cats and often lose their prey to other predators and scavengers. So, I took a minute to be proud of this momma for all she had done to help ensure the survival of her family. I took a video of them so I would always have them, and on we went, passing some reedbucks who posed for us on a termite mound as they kept watch for predators.

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In the national parks in Tanzania, tourist vehicles pay for an allotted time in the park. We had two days in the Serengeti. We had to be out of the park at a specific time or we would be charged for another day. Day passes for tourists are not cheap, so guides have to plan carefully to keep you on schedule for your departure. Ammy was working to get us out of the Serengeti on time that morning but, as we passed a rocky outcropping, we spied on top of a rock a momma lion and her cub. It was our Lion King moment. I imagine Ammy, silently defeated, was doing the math in his head, trying to determine how long we could sit and watch these lions. But, come on. Lion King.

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Little Simba on top of Pride Rock…am I right?

As soon as Ammy was able to pull us away from this scene, he began hauling it out of the Serengeti. I’m talking like 45 miles an hour on dirt roads for an hour. The top was still open, as were some windows in the heat of the late morning sun. After a while, it occurred to me that the breeze I was enjoying in my hair might not be such a bright idea. I tried to cover my head with a scarf, reminiscent of the women in movies in the 1960s riding in convertibles. Still, later it would take me 20 minutes of painful and painstaking work to comb the knots from my hair. For the record, Ammy did get us out of the park in time…with six minutes to spare.

We were headed towards two lakes in the northern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek, the latter of which would be our home for two nights. This is where the wildebeest migration is at this time of the year, and we were hoping to witness some of it. As we grew closer to the Ngorongoro region, we began seeing more wildlife, cape buffalo and elephants, along with wildebeest and zebra.

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Take a picture. It’ll last longer.

I never stopped being amazed by the elephants. African elephants are massive. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly how big they are until you are right there with them. This photo offers a little perspective. This big guy was crossing behind the Land Cruiser. Imagine if he had been next to it.

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We humans are tiny

We finally wound our way back into the conservation area. While we were confined to roads as much as possible in the Serengeti, Ammy was free to go off road here to get us into the wild and closer to the animals. This was our first opportunity to approach the migration and witness it first hand. It’s hard to get a scope of the migration on the ground. It’s even more difficult to capture it with a lens or even a video. Still, we tried.

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Driven by purpose…a need for water

The numbers of wildebeest and zebra are unimaginable. You’d think you’d seen the last of them and then you’d round a bend and there would be a line of hundreds upon thousands more. This was our first taste of the great migration and our first understanding that we would not be able to grasp its immensity, no matter how hard we tried.

Our travels off road through the savannah eventually took a toll on our ride, and we ended up with a flat tire in the bush. The day before we’d stopped multiple times to assist another safari vehicle by providing spare tires. This day it was our turn to be stricken with a punctured tire. Ammy worked quickly to get us back up and at ’em, though. I enjoyed that bit of time on the ground in the bush a lot more than Ammy did. Joe and I found a huge snail shell while out looking for rocks to keep the Land Cruiser from rolling off the jack. Never miss out on the opportunity to enjoy unexpected downtime. You never know what you might find.

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Hazards of off road travel

We were back in hillier territory now where the foliage was more abundant. We began to see impala and dik dik and giraffe again. It was a welcome change from the endless plain. We drove past Lake Ndutu and saw flamingos and other shore birds before climbing up a hill and landing at our next lodging, Lake Masek Tented Camp. This was the final stop on our grand tour, the largest of the camps where we would stay. It was also the most modern of our lodgings, with rooms equipped with telephones (you still have to call for your nightly escort to and from your tent) and bathtubs. We joked that, after where we had been, this was on the level of the Disneyworld Animal Kingdom Lodge. It had every luxury a westerner would want in a resort room. We were back in the land of hairdryers. To me it felt a little bit like someone was trying to break us back into our cushy lives back home. And I wasn’t sure I was ready for that.

On our way to dinner, I caught this marabou stork perched upon a dead tree near our tent. These guys are something else. Can’t wait to tell you about them tomorrow.

IMG_6803 2Once it was dark and we were settled back in our tents, I thought someone turned on an ambient creature-noise machine. We were up on a hill with the lake below us, and the sounds coming from the surrounding bush were magnified. I spent about fifteen minutes standing in my pajamas on the screened-in deck trying to capture the yips and cackles of hyenas on my phone, but the darn hyenas became shyenas each time I pressed the record button and they stopped their vocalizations. They were mocking me. You’ll have to trust me, though. I’d travel to Tanzania again just to hear them sing me to sleep.

 

 

A Day In Serengeti National Park

This day we awoke before sunrise to get onto the endless plain early. We packed breakfast along with us and loaded into the 4×4. Of course, none of this would have been possible if pre-dawn coffee hadn’t been delivered to our tent.

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Another gorgeous morning in Tanzania

The first things were saw as the sun rose were giraffe eating from the acacia near camp. But, we’d seen giraffe. We were in search of cats so we carried on. We drove in exhausted, early morning silence as Ammy listened for radio chatter. Finally he spied a couple vehicles and we found what we had been seeking…a large male lion.

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Sweet face but those paws, though…

Nothing can prepare you for the size of these beasts. They look innocent enough as they are just waking up, but we decided we were happy for our enclosed vehicle. We hung with this guy for a short while until he decided it was nap time again. There’s not much fun in staring at a sleeping lion.

We drove without much luck for a bit so we decided to stop for our breakfast. The beautiful thing about the Serengeti is that it is wide open. When the grasses are short, it’s easy to see a good distance. So, after Ammy made sure the coast was clear of predators, we took our breakfast outside the Land Cruiser and once again felt the immensity of the plains and our relatively small place on them.

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More coffee in the chilly early morning

After closing up breakfast and moving on, we came upon our cheetah friends from the day before, the momma and her four growing cubs. Even when these guys were doing nothing, I still enjoyed watching them. Maybe because there were four of them. Maybe because I was impressed with their mother. Maybe because they are just too cute. Maybe because I kept waiting to watch one sprint off, the fastest land mammal on the planet. Or maybe simply because I love things with dots.

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Dotty things

Later Ammy was able to find us a pair of male lions guarding their kill. Ammy explained that both males and females hunt. They guard their kill in the same way. A pride will bring down an animal and then take turns feeding and guarding their prize. Some members of the pack will go off in search of shade or water and others will stay to protect what is theirs. Lions are rarely challenged for their meals. We watched as hyenas, jackals, and vultures stood at a safe distance, patiently waiting for the lions to decide they were finished. This was a fresh kill. Scavengers would have to wait a while.

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The reality of life on the Serengeti…lions are king

The lions were relentless in their desire for the shade afforded in the areas around tourist vehicles. They were completely unfazed by engines and the movement. When we would have to move on, Ammy would start the car and we would slowly edge away from the lions and they would be exposed to the sun once more. I imagined them mentally cursing us for denying them their shade.

 

A healthy respect for the wildlife in Tanzania is important. It’s easy after days on safari to get a false sense of security being around these creatures because they seem to care not a whit about your presence. You pull up near them and they cast a glance in your direction and go on about their business unperturbed. Still…they are wild creatures and, although they seem unimpressed and uninterested, you are the interloper. Only once on safari did we witness an animal become aggravated by human presence. And that instance was enough to remind us to watch our behavior.

A couple from England, who were also staying at Namiri Plains camp and with whom we’d had dinner the night before, were viewing a pair of male lions when we pulled up to observe them as well. The lions by then had settled in the shade of their open-air safari vehicle. And for a period of time they lie there, peaceful and still. The woman was taking pictures with her iPhone and, feeling a bit emboldened by the lions laissez-faire attitude, leaned out of the vehicle a bit more to get a closer photo of the lion less than a few feet below her. Without warning, the young male lion abruptly leapt to his feet and let out an impressive, sonorous roar in her face. It happened so quickly none of us were able to get a photo of the incident. The woman later recounted her story and said the lion was close enough to her face that she felt and smelled his breath. Yikes.

Ammy explained that almost all animals you encounter on safari will give you a warning. That lion was letting her know her intrusion was not welcome. He easily could have taken a swipe at her and caused much greater harm, but there was no need. She had gotten his message and probably had the heart rate to prove it. The only animals, Ammy cautioned, that are unpredictable and will not give you a warning are the cape buffalo.  They may look like mellow cows with large horns, but they have a short fuse and will attack when they’ve reached their limit. This reminded me of the bison in Yellowstone and how nearly every year some naive tourist is gored when they get too close. Wild animals are wild, people.

As we left the lions behind to head on to our next wildlife adventure, my son asked if I could help with this epic photo. How could I say no to his meta moment?

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A lion saunters off in Africa while Toto sings Africa

While big cats are the highlight of the Serengeti, there are birds to enjoy as well. We saw a flock of lovebirds resting on a dead acacia tree among its thorns. We also saw several kori bustard birds. These are the largest flying bird native to Africa, weighing up to 40 pounds. They are something else.

The rest of the day was filled with female lions. Five of them lounged around their recent kill while scavengers lurked nearby. They effectively surround their food, making it impossible for the scavengers to invade without risking peril. You simply don’t mess with the lions. Here is a video these five lionesses with their kill on the windy Serengeti, vultures watching from the background.

As we headed back to camp late that afternoon, rains were on the distant horizon. Bit by bit we watched this rainbow form from the two sides and eventually meet to create this wonder. My sister-in-law captured this panorama photo of incredibly Mother Nature.       I know, right?

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On The Road To The Serengeti

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The next morning we headed out to Serengeti National Park. It takes several hours to reach the Serengeti from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Along the way, we passed many Maasai. The Maasai are the only people allowed to live within the conservation area, and these people originally called the Serengeti home but were relocated to the crater area when Serengeti National Park was created. In order to protect the area, only the Maasai are permitted to graze livestock and they are allowed to cultivate only the foods they need to subsist. Tourist-savvy male Maasai youth adorn their faces with white chalk used traditionally for a coming-of-age ceremony and stand along the roadside willing to pose for photo ops if you offer cash. While the Maasai have been forced to abandon their pastoral, nomadic ways so that their children can be educated in accordance with Tanzanian law, the government has made some concessions to allow them to continue with many of their traditions. Contemplating how the Maasai have been treated in contrast with how the Native American tribes have been treated in the United States gave me something to do on the drive. My son found another way to shorten the drive.

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As you get closer to the Serengeti, the vegetation decreases substantially. Shrubs and trees are few and far between, while grasses dominate the landscape. Serengeti means “endless plains.” It’s a fitting name. After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at the photo op entrance to the park, took a few quick shots, checked the tire pressure, and resumed driving into the park office and gift shop.

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While Ammy was off conducting official tourist business, the six of us followed a short trail up a rocky outcropping to get a view. Along the way, we happened upon several mwanza agama lizards. Who knew?

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How amazing is this little guy?

Once we’d had our requisite picnic lunch, we pointed ourselves in the general direction of our camp for the night, hoping to spy some big cats along the way. The Serengeti landscape took some getting used to after all the lushness of our previous locales. We joked that it reminded us of Wyoming or eastern Colorado, which is to say it was familiar but not in the best way. After a while, we began to hear radio chatter from other guides and Ammy started off towards them. I had no idea how Ammy knew where to go. I mean, sure, he’d been doing this sort of thing for 20 years, but the rough dirt roads were not marked in any way. There were no landmarks by which to guide yourself. I started to wonder if we would get lost and pondered how many Lara Bars I had in my pack for emergency sustenance. Finally we saw a few other Land Cruisers and drove to them to get a closer look at what they had discovered. Lions!

I’m not sure what I expected when I thought about seeing lions in their natural habitat. I suppose I imagined they would be more entertaining. Aside from the fact that they are potentially lethal, lions are not all that interesting. Once you accept that they aren’t going to break into the vehicle and eat you, you settle into the reality that they are cats. They sleep. A lot. When they’re not sleeping, they’re resting. When they’re not resting, they’re lazily eyeing the horizon for their next bite of fast food. With a proper meal, they can go days in between hunting. And so they sleep. Without an abundance of trees, they find relaxing in the shade under safari vehicles a welcome respite from the African sun. After a while, all their yawning was making me yawn. We moved on to see what else we could find.

Because it was migration time, we began to see large herds of wildebeest and zebra. We finally got the opportunity to observe some hyena too. They are much more reclusive than I expected and went out of their way to avoid us. Perhaps they should be called shyenas instead? While we continued along the road, we looked for ways to amuse ourselves in the vastness of the endless plain. Karen did some tree posing with a tree.

At long last we found what I had been waiting for…cheetah. As big cats go, cheetah are my favorite. They are long, sleek, fast, and cute as the day is long. And, let’s face it, they are not nearly as terrifying as other big cats. That afternoon we found a mother with four cubs. Ammy said she was a good mother because it is hard to keep four cubs alive. We watched her begin stalking, considering taking off after some potential dinner, but in the end she decided against it. Cheetahs know their limits, and they won’t waste their energy chasing something they don’t stand a chance of catching. With four cubs to feed, this momma had to make wise choices to ensure their survival.

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Winners of the prize for Cutest

As the sun began to slip towards the western horizon, we drifted into our next camp. Namiri Plains is another camp run by Asilia Africa, the same company that operates Little Oliver’s. Unlike Little Oliver’s, however, Namiri Plains is a mobile camp that changes locations as the migration moves through. The tents here were traditional tents without thatched roof coverings and stone floors. I could not wait to check them out. After a quick meet and greet with the staff, we were guided to our tents.

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Are you kidding me?

I haven’t spent much time extolling the virtues of glamping in Africa. It is something else entirely. It was hard to fathom that you were in the middle of the Serengeti. The hot water came courtesy of solar panels, and the water was always Africa hot. The tents were private, incredibly spacious and comfortable, containing a bed, a seating area, a desk, a vanity with two sinks, a flushing toilet, and not one but two showers…indoor and outdoor. There was plenty of indoor lighting and even power strips for charging cameras and phones. And the views. Sigh.

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Our sleeping quarters in the Serengeti

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The view from our bed

We finished settling in and headed off to share dinner with the other camp guests. This camp was bigger than our last one, so we had the opportunity to dine with other tourists. Again the food was delicious and in no short supply, and they went out of their way to cater to my gluten sensitivities. I remain awe of how the Tanzanians can provide this level of hospitality in a mobile camp in the midst of an endless plain.

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By the time we finished our meal and had some campfire time, it was nearly dark. One thing you are not allowed to do while on safari is walk without camp staff to or from your tent between dusk and dawn. At night, we were escorted back to our tents by a member of staff and a Maasai warrior. There were a couple Maasai tribesman who patrolled the camps at night, keeping an eye out for potential danger. They did not carry guns, only walking staffs. They understand the animals, and the animals understand them. We were told that the lions know that they Maasai are danger to them. It was easier to drift off to sleep at night in the land of big cats knowing the Maasai had our backs.

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Dream Achieved – Ngorongoro Crater

When the idea was first floated to take a trip to Africa for safari, we had no agreement on specifically where we wanted to go. Africa is massive with myriad intriguing places, varying ecosystems, and animals to see. Eventually we narrowed it down to two typical safari countries, South Africa or Tanzania. I was in the minority in wanting Tanzania and, like a candidate running for office, I waged a campaign. I wanted Tanzania because I needed to see Mt Kilimanjaro because I hope to summit it someday. I wanted Tanzania because it was closer and would involve less travel time. And, finally, I wanted Tanzania because it contains the Ngorongoro Crater.

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The Ngorongoro Crater isn’t actually a crater in the geological sense. It’s the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera. The crater formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself 3 million years ago. Its floor covers 100 square miles at an elevation of 5,900 feet. Its walls tower 2,000 feet above. It is a conservation area and a World Heritage Site. And, it’s a perfect place for the approximately 25,000 animals who call it home. Large numbers of zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, gazelles, and antelope graze the floor where lions and hyena keep a watchful eye. There is no other place like it on earth.

To enter the crater, you must drive up to the rim before beginning your descent to the crater floor. Although I intellectually understood what the crater was, I could never have grasped what I saw from that lookout point without standing there. I think as tour guide Ammy never tires of the reactions of guests as they stumble dumbfounded to the edge of the rim and breathe in the magnificence of the view. It’s unimaginable. And photos cannot do it justice, which is why I wasn’t prepared for the emotion I felt that morning despite having spent hours viewing other’s images of the crater online before our trip. 

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Looks like we made it!

After we took a gazillion photos that again would not do it justice, we loaded back into the car and turned onto a one-way, 4×4 road to drop the 2,000 feet to the floor. We rocked and rolled from side to side on the way down. Sometimes the downward angle seemed impossible.ab47

Down, down we go

When we finally reached the bottom, it was overwhelming. The views were 360 degrees for 10 miles. Everywhere you turned, there were animals. We saw thousands of zebras communing with thousands of gazelles and antelopes and wildebeests. We saw some lions lazing in the sun. We watched a couple zebras fight, kicking and biting each other. Then we saw an ostrich running from an annoyed wildebeest.

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As we all surveyed the surrounding area viewing different wildlife interactions and trying to choose which to focus on, Luke shouted that he saw a honey badger. Say what? Aren’t those nocturnal? This poor fellow seemed to be lost. Ammy surmised he might have gone out hunting and gotten a little too far from his home. He searched for a while before finally settling down near some jackals. While honey badgers may be fierce, apparently they also can be forgetful. Don’t trust this guy to be key master at your keg party.

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You know what they say about the honey badger

The one thing you don’t expect on the crater floor is the plethora of Land Cruisers. The crater is a popular place. But because it is also enormous, you don’t feel crowded save for a few areas. The hippo pond is especially popular. Good luck getting a view there without waiting in a line of vehicles.

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Crater traffic jam

The other time when we were bogged down by other tourists and their open-roof vehicles was while attempting to view a rhino. Rhinos are a rare sight in the crater because their population, which numbered about 108 in the mid 1960s, is now only about 12-18 individuals. Ammy heard on the radio there was a rhino to view, but took the long way around hoping the traffic would break up before we got there. It did somewhat, and we were able to park and observe it with our binoculars. Steve, with his crazy camera lens, was able to capture this shot from about 150 yards away.

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Get off my back

I felt sorry for the rhino. It just wanted to live its life and cross the road, but all the traffic was parked in its way. (Why did the rhino cross the road? Because it was sick of all the damn tourists.) It eventually gave up and retreated far enough back that it could not be seen from any of the established roads. It would cross another time.

At midday, Ammy found us a picnic spot in the Land Cruiser parking lot and we set up lunch. We could not eat outside the 4×4 because the birds were aggressive and not taking no for an answer. We watched them dive bombing other people and decided that indoor dining was the best option.

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Land Cruiser picnic

A friend recently asked me what you do when nature calls on safari. Well, there is no bathroom in the vehicle. So you go into nature when nature calls, which is much easier for the men than the women. Fortunately, after decades of camping and hiking, I have no issues with baring my hind end in the great outdoors. Still, you need some privacy, so the back of the vehicle is where you go. We called this “checking the tire pressure.” Too much coffee this morning? Tell Ammy you need to check the tire pressure, hop out, head to the back of the vehicle, and hope no other Land Cruiser comes pulling up before your pants do.

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Tires look good, says Steve

There are so many critters in the crater that there are endless viewing and photo opportunities. The animals are so close that more often than not you do not need binoculars or a zoom lens to see them or get a photo. I never thought the kids and I would be able to spend 8+ hours a day for a week without wifi or texting, doing nothing but staring at animals, without beginning to miss our life back at home. I was wrong. We weren’t missing our technology at all.

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If you’re going to make the trip to Tanzania for the purpose of going into the crater, though, be forewarned that in the dryer months views in the crater may be obscured by dust kicked up by Land Cruisers. Ammy told us that sometimes you can’t see from one side to the other because of airborne dust. We lucked out because we needed to travel over the winter holidays. After the short rains of November and December, the grasses were low but green and abundant and, because of the periodic light rains, the roads and landscape were not dried out. Best of both worlds. It made for fantastic scenery in addition to wildlife viewing. IMG_6366

Reflecting hippo pool on a clear day

Every night at dinnertime we played a game called High/Low where we each recounted our high moment and low moment of the day. As I recall it, this was one day where we all had to dig for a low. Seriously, what kind of low can you recount while eating a gourmet meal at the Plantation Lodge after a clear, sunny day in the Ngorongoro Crater? Perhaps only that your stops to check the tire pressure subtracted from your time enjoying the wildlife.

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Climbing Lessons

Editor’s Note: I published this nine years ago today on my first blog, Suburban Sirens. The boy in this essay is almost 18 now, and we talked yesterday about how he has changed from a 1st grader who was failing reading and struggling with low self-esteem into a high school junior who is an honors student running varsity track. The decision to medicate our son with ADHD is not one we took lightly, but it was the first step in changing Joe’s trajectory through life. It may not be the right choice for everyone and it isn’t without its risks, but he and I are certain it gave him the opportunity to rise to every occasion and find his best self. Could not be more proud of our climber.

Recently, my son delivered a 10-minute oral presentation about rock climbing to his 2nd grade class. As I watched from the back of the classroom in one of those kid-sized chairs, I was guardedly optimistic. We certainly had practiced enough. I was impressed with how well he knew the speech and how calm he seemed. Honestly, though, most of what I felt was clouded by the sheer shock of how well it was going. If my son had been reporting on Jesus and ended his speech with a walking-on-water demonstration in the classroom, it would not have made a greater impression on me than his climbing speech did. That may seem like a bold claim, but it’s true. A year ago, I could never have imagined what I was witnessing in that classroom. I sat there smiling at Joe as he looked up from his 4 x 6 index cards at me, thinking the entire time about the colossal difference time can make. Funny how 365 little days can add up to one huge year.

Last year at this time, Joe was struggling mightily in first grade. He was a bright kid who hated school. We battled every night over the homework that took most kids in his class just 15 minutes to complete but on good nights never took Joe less than an hour. He was getting failing marks in reading. Each night we worked on his studies and each night one (if not both) of us either cried or had a full-scale tantrum. Our home was a den of stress and friction. I could not comprehend how he could recall every character name and story line from six Star Wars movies but he could not remember our 10-digit phone number. He could not tie his shoes or complete one-step commands to put his dinner plate on the counter or put his shoes on the stairs. His handwriting was illegible. When Joe was nervous or excited, he would flap his hands as if he could simply take flight to avoid the situation. He would repeatedly do things I had asked him hundreds of times not to do and that he knew were wrong; when I would ask why he was doing them, he would frustratedly answer “I don’t know.” Yet through all this, I still spied a boy who was capable of drawing correlations between complex subjects and who spent time philosophically pondering evolution and God. Although he was just 7, he was my “deep thinker.”

Despite his intelligence, Joe just could not convert his knowledge into practice at school. And, because I had never struggled in school, I could not understand what that felt like. The situation was ruining our relationship, killing Joe’s self-confidence, and making me feel as if I was getting the worst employee review I’ve ever earned at a job. It was breaking my spirit, and my disappointment was readily registered by my sensitive son who wanted nothing more than to make me proud. We both wanted to make the other happy, but neither of us had a clue how to do it.

We had noticed early on that Joe wasn’t quite like other kids, but we kept thinking he would catch up. He was born prematurely, so in the beginning we used that as an excuse. Then, as he grew older, we explained that he was a late bloomer. In kindergarten, his teacher suggested that he might have sensory processing disorder, which means that he can’t filter out outside stimuli so everything in the world is overwhelming. We took him to a pediatric therapy service that specialized in helping kids learn to cope with sensory processing disorder. The owner of the service administered tests and noted he was years behind in simple things we all take for granted, like balance and motor planning (knowing how to make the body do things like climb up ladders or catch a ball). At last, we thought we had found a pathway to help him catch up and achieve the way we knew he could. And, he did make strides for a while. Then he hit a wall again, and we were stumped.

Along the way, a few people had suggested to us that perhaps Joe had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We scoffed. We fought it. Maybe denial isn’t just a river in Egypt? But, we were running out of possible ways to help him. What if Joe had ADHD and we, in our intense aversion to the idea of medicating him, eliminated the one thing that would help him reach his full potential and remove his immense frustration? I talked to a few close friends about the situation. A couple of them reacted negatively to the idea that we would willingly medicate Joe. Their fears reminded me that a positive ADHD diagnosis would carry with it a stigma. Finally, after discussing my dilemma with another friend, I finally heard the encouragement I needed; “Take whatever help you can get and don’t look back.” It was good advice.

Before second grade started, I filled out myriad forms and mailed them off to the psychiatric section of Children’s Hospital in Denver. We set up several appointments with different psychologists and a psychiatrist. During those meetings, Joe’s behavior was downright painful for me to witness. He wouldn’t look at the therapists. He refused to answer questions. When he did talk, he was curt and borderline disrespectful. He wandered the room nervously, flapping his hands the entire time. He crawled under furniture. He was distracted by every possible sound and item in the room. I cringed. Three mental health professionals spent time with him and all three said they were certain that our sweet son was struggling with ADHD.

Dr. Lippolis, one of the incredible psychiatrists at the hospital, explained in the simplest terms to Joe what was happening in his brain. She told him that in the front of his brain there was a little man who was responsible for making choices and that right now the little man was asleep on the job. With the right medication, that little man would wake up and Joe would be able to do all the things he wanted to but couldn’t. Joe told the doctor he would like to try the medicine. And, for our part, we had exhausted every other way of helping him, and he’d gone through his entire first grade year miserable, frustrated, and hopeless. We couldn’t imagine an additional 11 years of having Joe return home at the end of the school day saying, “I’m the dumbest kid in my class.” If the notion of medicating him made us nervous, the mere thought of him going through his entire life with low self-esteem and no feeling of personal success was downright terrifying.

Joe started on Concerta, the long-lasting stimulant meant to wake up the little man in the front of his brain, during his first week of second grade. We saw a difference in him nearly immediately. Within two weeks, his handwriting was neater and he was writing stories on his own. Our child who had refused to draw or color was suddenly sitting and happily doing art projects. He was following multiple step directions. He was bringing home papers with A and B grades on them. He could carry on a prolonged conversation without distraction. His reading skills improved exponentially overnight. We heard a lot less “I can’t” and a lot more “Let me try.” His nervous hand flapping ceased. He was smiling again. In short, he was the Joe we knew he was meant to be. When I ponder how he must have felt as he tried valiantly to pass along what he knew but couldn’t, my heart hurts. I wish hindsight, with its flawless vision, sold tickets for time travel so I could go back 365 days and show more patience and compassion to my son as he struggled with that little man asleep at the wheel. All I can do now, however, is follow my friend’s advice, take the help I can get, and try not to look back and question the choices I’ve made.

Most parents hope to impart some wisdom to their children. I must admit, though, that I have probably learned far more from Joe in his time with us than he has learned from me. It’s appropriate that he chose climbing as his speech topic because climbing is what he has been doing since the day he showed up seven weeks early in June 2001. If the past year is any indication of where his climbing will take him, I’m fairly certain not even the sky will be his limit. As for me, I’m going to follow Joe’s example, look ahead, and start climbing too. I think he might be on to something.