Coffee, Dik-Dik, and Lake Manyara National Park

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Caffeine addicts rejoice!

I remember before we left for our Tanzania trip, my sister-in-law asked my husband if he thought they would have decent coffee where we’d be staying. We giggled a bit before he assured her our caffeine needs would be more than adequately met with tasty coffee.  At the Asilia properties where we stayed, Little Oliver’s Camp and later Namiri Plains Camp in the Serengeti, they brought it to our tents every morning on wooden trays so we could enjoy it while we readied for breakfast. There are days when I wake up at home now and look forlornly around the room in the sad realization that no one has brought my coffee in. Dammit.

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Zazu and Mrs Zazu have breakfast with us

All good things must come to an end and so, after our morning coffee and a delightful patio breakfast where a pair of hornbills came to steal some food, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts. I will not lie. I legit cried as we pulled away from Little Oliver’s Camp. I cannot state highly enough what a magical place it is. The quarters are luxurious with no attention to detail spared, and the outdoor showers are the stuff of dreams. The main lounge area is stunning and comfortable. The food is delicious and served in large quantity along with wonderful wine and cocktails. The people working there are the best. You go to Tanzania for the animals and the experience but, make no mistake about it, the kindhearted and gracious people will convince you to return.

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Everyone came out to say goodbye

This day, we would drive head out of Tarangire National Park, visit Lake Manyara National Park, and eventually land at our next home, the Plantation Lodge. It would take several hours to exit Tarangire, so we left early to ensure we’d have time to stop and view the abundant wildlife on the way out.

One creature we loved seeing was the dik-dik, a small, territorial antelope. Yes. Such a thing exists. Steve, the boys, and I became obsessed with these little guys, forcing Ammy to stop over and over so we could watch them defend their territory with their tiny horns or dart off, stop, and then eye us suspiciously. Most people go to Africa and go crazy for cheetah or giraffes. Here we were, losing it over 11 pound antelope. But, look at this photo and tell me you blame us.

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Female dik-dik….try not to fall in love

We had seen a few giraffe at a distance during our time in Tarangire, but on our way out of the park on New Year’s Day, we saw over 40 of them in the span of only a mile. We watched a pair battle each other with their long necks. We saw one bend at the knees to eat grass and saw others stretch to reach the tips of the treetops to grab the most tender bites of acacia leaves. Ammy said he hadn’t often seen them together in such large numbers. We joked that perhaps it was their annual giraffe convention. It felt like they were coming out to see us off.

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After bidding a fond farewell to Tarangire, we headed to Lake Manyara where we expected to see zebra, wildebeests (aka, gnus), and cape buffalo. The first thing we encountered in the park were baboons along the road. Baboons are fun to watch. They, like the elephants, are always up to something. Anywhere you park, you must roll up your windows because they are opportunists. On more than one occasion we saw a baboon dive into a vehicle and make off with food. I couldn’t decide if I thought they were creepy with their huge canine teeth or adorable with their mischievous and spunky personalities.

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Not long after beginning our drive though the park, the sky opened up. It was the only time on the trip when we endured a sustained daytime rain. We closed the roof and tried to take photos out the windows. The area around Lake Manyara is marshy, and I was grateful for the Land Cruiser as we passed through some standing water. As the rains began to lighten, we saw some zebras that looked as if they wished to switch places with us in our dry vehicle. I started speaking of them with the traditional British accent because zeh-bra sounds much more dignified.

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That face, though

The wildlife to be seen here is impressive: elephants, hippos, zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, and all types of water birds. Because the weather wasn’t in our favor, we didn’t spend much time in this park but I believe it would be worthwhile to give another shot at a later date.

We headed out towards our next lodging, stopping at a shop filled with locally crafted items. There were paintings, carvings, and all manner of beaded and other textile gifts. We had fun choosing special treats for our family back home. And Steve did his best to barter lower prices. In the end, I think he felt he could have done a better job and saved us some money. I told him that we were helping the local economy and, let’s face it, could spare a little extra for people who didn’t have nearly what we do. It’s all good.

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Ammy turned off onto a dirt road that wasn’t marked and we bounced our way back a few miles to our final destination of the day. As we pulled up the long road towards our lodging, it was obvious we were in for a treat. Plantation Lodge is set on a hill, the entire property shrouded from view with greenery. We pulled up to a parking area and got out of the Land Cruiser. After climbing some stairs to reach the property, I began shaking my head. Ahead of us lie perfectly manicured lawns, all manner of tropical plants, and white cottages with heavy wooden doors. Arbors were covered in flowers, plumeria bloomed everywhere, and several cats lounged lazily in the shade of day waiting for their night shift to begin. Were we really in Africa? This was my second choice lodge for this portion of the trip, and I found myself glad we’d landed here. It was clear we were in for a treat.

We settled into our rooms, took some time to wander the property, and grabbed an evening cocktail before dinner while the boys took to the pool. It’s such a pleasure to travel in a way that affords complete relaxation. Because Deeper Africa took care of every last detail, we were able to show up and just be in the moment. I breathed deeply that afternoon with my cocktail in hand, sunglasses on my face, and the promise of another wondrous adventure day on the horizon.

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Living the dream

Tarangire National Park

After our first incredible day on safari, I thought nothing could compare. I was wrong. On day two of our sojourn, New Year’s Eve, our hosts raised the bar. This will live on as one of the favorite days of my life ever. And, to be fair, I’ve lived a fortunate life, have traveled to four continents, and enjoyed many “once in a lifetime” experiences.

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Off for our adventure

We awoke early to breakfast with the morning plan being a guided safari walk. We were outfitted with gaiters to protect our legs and feet from acacia thorns and bugs, stainless steel water bottles and holders, and horse-tail swatters to discourage biting flies. Our guide drove out a short way from camp begin our walk. Before we had left the security of the vehicle, we were debriefed on safety. We would be walking with our guide who was carrying a high-powered rifle and a park ranger who had a fully automatic assault weapon. Realizing we would be on the ground with creatures larger, bigger, and faster than us that could stomp, gore, claw, kick, bite, and ingest us if they felt threatened was intimidating. We were not to speak unless directed. We were to remain in a single file line. We learned hand commands meant to keep us safe if wildlife grew agitated or aggressive. If an animal charged, we were not to run. 

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Single file, folks

The first thing we spotted was a mating pair of tortoises. A bit later we noticed females and young elephants grazing. In the other direction, two bull elephants were doing the same. Our guide was careful to check our position and the wind direction so we would not be detected. We walked silently through the bush. The flies were relentless in heavily foliaged areas, and the swatters were a godsend. We saw ostrich, varieties of antelope, and warthog, and fortunately did not encounter any predators. We stopped to identify a buffalo that had been killed, its bones scattered by scavengers.

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Skull of a female cape buffalo

Of the creatures we found, none were more shy than the antelope. They watched us warily from great distances and were only able to be photographed decently with my husband’s high-powered camera lens. The warthogs were the most fun to be around because, while still reticent, they were animated, curious, and checked up on us often.

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The common hartebeest flanked by two more rare oryx

We somehow wandered right back to our vehicle, although I had no clue how given our circuitous route not following any given trail. I was grateful the guides hadn’t had to use a weapon, although they admitted they rarely had to. Through extensive wildlife safari training and experience, they know how to keep people and wildlife safe.

That afternoon, four of the six of us went out for a drive and were treated to an elephant extravaganza. We encountered several herds up close. Their bodies were tinged red after time in the water followed by a roll in the earth to smother the ticks they regularly acquired. Some scratched themselves on massive, abandoned termite mounds. Some used their trunks to cover themselves in dirt. Being this close to an elephant, close enough to see her eyelashes and be dusted with the dirt she threw on herself, was a gift I will never forget. (Video here)

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This is everything

I was not prepared for Tanzania to be as beautiful as it was. The short rains of November and December had created an environment that was fertile for grazing with short grasses that offered us unimpeded viewing of the creatures who call this place home. We had flawless weather (warm days, temperate nights, very little rain) and the benefit of an endlessly green landscape. I was awestruck by the scenery.

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Oh…Mother Nature. You are such a show off.

As we were driving towards our evening plans, we witnessed large family groups of elephants trumpeting and beating either a hurried rush towards a sunset get together or a hasty retreat from some unseen predators. Ammy told us he had not seen so many groups exhibiting this same behavior, and he had no idea what might be the cause. I wish I had photographs of it but, because of the distance at which the elephants were and the fading light of day, it was not to be captured. Still, as a lover of these grand beasts, I felt as if someone had commanded them to put on a display just for me. Over a hundred, perhaps several hundred, were all on their way their way somewhere with great purpose. Maybe it was the beginning of their New Year’s Eve ritual. Who knows? It was my Day of the Elephants and my heart was full.

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One herd headed off towards the sunset

Ammy told us it was time to move on and began driving with serious purpose as the sun began to sink on the western horizon. At last we rounded a bend and I understood what his rush had been. Sundowners! I’d read about this, but honestly had no idea the level to which this tradition was taken seriously.

Sundowners are drinks at sundown in the bush. I saw several safari vehicles congregated near a set up of camp chairs with a table and a makeshift-but-well-stocked bar. I couldn’t help myself and uttered to Ammy several statements of disbelief and joy. What? Are you kidding me? This is nuts! You guys are unbelievable. 

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This is how cocktail hour is meant to be lived 

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What’s your poison?

Karen, my sister-in-law, popped open a bottle of champagne they had on ice for us. This was accompanied by freshly made potato chips and followed by made-to-order drinks of our choosing. Our oldest son, who is only 17, was treated to a glass of champagne too, making him feel extra special. And while we stood there sipping our drinks, the sun went down in a spectacular flourish of yellow, orange, pink, red, and violet.

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Africa…you charmer

After dinner, our final event was a nighttime game drive in an open air vehicle. With the use of high-bean flashlights, we watched a genet climb stealthily through tree branches, hoping to capture a bird who was perched there. We also saw a variety of mongoose on the prowl. And while the creatures were not as generous with their time or numbers as they had been earlier in the day, the experience of driving at night, seeing stars which we had never seen in such multitude, was unforgettable. We might as well have been the only people on the planet. So far removed we were from our usual lives at home, from the bustle of cities and relentless visual noise of light pollution and the distraction of electronics and to-do-lists.

We returned to camp overwhelmed by our day and settled in for late dinner around the campfire. Every new year should begin from this point of peace and oneness with nature and Mother Earth. Every new year should begin by taking a moment to inhale and exhale consciously and appreciate the current moment. The future is not a guarantee, but a wish. Live now the wind whispered to me through the trees.

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Fireside contemplation with a full belly and a glass of South African wine

 

 

Tanzania, Baby!

Africa had been on my dream travel list since I was a teenager. In December, through the kindness of my unfathomably generous adopted parents (aka, in-laws), I departed Denver with my family and our carefully packed and weighed bags, bound for a safari in eastern Africa. Three flights and twenty-four hours later, our 777 touched down at Kilimanjaro International Airport after dark. We deplaned via two sets of stairs and made our way across the tarmac to the small airport. I’d made it.

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Arrival at Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania

That night our travel company, Deeper Africa, had us booked into a small hotel in the nearby city of Arusha as the jumping off point for our safari. We hopped into a van that had been arranged for us and made our way there in relative silence. Exhausted, we stared out the windows into the night. As we bounced down the dirt roads, I was struck by how dark it was. Although we were approaching a city, there were no street lights. Dim lights illuminated just a few facades of gas stations and small shops along the way, and motorcycle headlights provided the only proof of other motorists. It was Saturday night, though, and off the road we saw villagers congregating and enjoying their night out.

We arrived at the small boutique hotel, Onsea House, and a large staff grabbed our bags and offered us hibiscus tea. Eventually we were settled into our rooms. It was humid with a temperature of 75 at midnight. Even with the windows open, without our western luxury of air conditioning, we laid atop our mosquito-netted beds and struggled to drift off, wiped out yet too excited about the upcoming adventures to ease into sleep.

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Hotel room at Onsea House in Arusha

The next morning at breakfast, we were at last able to appreciate the summer beauty of Arusha. From the patio where we had breakfast, we gazed upon Mt Meru, a dormant volcano, which at almost 15k feet stands taller than all 58 of the Fourteeners (the nickname for peaks over 14k feet) back home in Colorado. Its immensity was shrouded by low morning clouds. Around us, flowers bloomed on bushes and palm trees swayed in a light breeze. Standing there, taking it all in, it felt more like an island in the Caribbean than what I had imagined for Tanzania.

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Mt Meru in the early African summer

After a European breakfast, we met our travel guide, Ammy. He had arrived in the safari Land Cruiser, our transport and adventure base for the next eight days. Ammy is a big man with an even bigger friendly smile and deep laugh that made us feel immediately at ease. As soon as our gear was loaded, we were on our way to Tarangire National Park, full of questions for our guide. We learned that Arusha was home to approximately 400,000 people, a fact which boggled my mind when I considered how dark it had been upon our arrival. So used to city lights we are.

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Ready to hit the road in the Land Cruiser

 

The initial highway out of Arusha was paved. We drove out into the vastness of the countryside, lush greenery giving way to more sparse vegetation that reminded us more of home. Small homesteads and villages dotted the countryside, while Maasai wearing their colorful cloaks and holding tall wooden walking sticks stood among herds of goats and cattle alongside the road. This was what I had imagined Africa would be.

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Countryside near Arusha

As we grew closer to Tarangire National Park, the landscape again changed. As December is the end of the short rains, the area was green with low grasses and leafed shrubbery. There were more acacia and baobab trees here. The wildlife began to appear. While Ammy checked us in at the park entrance, we wandered around the visitors area and saw some black-faced vervet monkeys sitting on a branch. While we were enthralled with them, they could not have cared less about us. One monkey, in fact, was too interested in his own blue parts to notice us noticing him.

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Caption this

We slowly made our way along the dirt road in the park, winding towards the camp where we would spend the next two nights. Close to the park entrance, we saw group after group of warthogs, a creature I never thought much about before but immediately came to love, their tails with long hair at the end serving as little flags by which you could spot them as they ran through the grasses. The Swahili word for warthog is ngiri, but to me they will always be Pumba.

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Warthog family grazing in Tarangire National Park

We stopped for a picnic lunch in a campground (yes, campground) in the park. There were a few families from Italy who had pitched their own tents there. With the number of wild creatures in the park and no fences to keep them out of sleeping quarters, we decided early on that we felt much safer staying in larger structures than your typical two-person REI creation. I mean, at least an elephant wouldn’t accidentally crush our tent underfoot, right?

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Yes. Wine with lunch on safari. Spoiled rotten.

Tarangire National Park is 1,110 square miles, so it’s just a little bit smaller than Yosemite National Park in California. Without paved roads in the park, travel can be bumpy and slow going. This makes the drive through it ideal for spotting its many protected creatures. On safari, it is a game to see who can find new wildlife first. And, yes, eventually on a safari trip you do get to the point when you are saying, “Oh, more zebra over there. Yawn.”

It wasn’t long before we sighted our first elephants. I’d like to say that seeing an elephant family in the wild is not a big deal, but that is a lie. The elephants were a non-stop delight for me. They are far and away my favorite wild animal, and seeing them where they live happily protected was something I will never forget. Ammy told us that the animals in the park have no fear of the vehicles, so they are generally unfazed when you pull up near them and just go on about their business. This makes it easy to observe their behaviors and witness their interactions with each other. Only once did an elephant group decide they weren’t thrilled with our presence, and then they let us know by appearing agitated (flapping their ears, tossing their heads, becoming vocal) and we respectfully moved on to another group.

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First glimpse of many, many elephants

Here is a short video of our first sighting.

On our first day on safari, which was really only a half a day because of the morning drive from Arusha, we logged an impressive seventeen new animal sightings, including ostrich, jackal, cheetah, baboons, mongoose, cape buffalo, giraffe, and several different species of antelope. And Ammy patiently answered every single question we had about every single thing we saw.

Finally, he had to drag us away from wildlife viewing because we were expected for dinner at our lodging. So we accepted that we would see more animals in the days to come and drove straight on to Little Oliver’s Camp. Little Oliver’s camp has only five luxury tents, so it is smaller and more intimate than many safari camps. I had seen photos of it prior to our departure, so I thought I knew what to expect. What I experienced upon arrival, however, was well beyond my wildest expectations. If I ever make it back to Africa, I will be staying at Little Oliver’s. It is one of the most special places I have ever been. I teared up when I stepped onto this deck. I tear up now remembering that moment.

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Early sunset on the deck

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Our “tent”

After an incredible dinner, it was time to rest up. As the sun set on our first full day in Tanzania, I knew we had only scratched the surface of our experiences here. More to come!

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Acacia trees at sunset

 

 

About To Bloom

IMG_8313“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” 

Yesterday I had one of those life-altering conversations you can only have with someone who is your dedicated cheerleader. It started as a call to vent a frustration I was having over something I should have not been surprised about, and it ended over three hours later with me having reached 10,000 steps on my Fitbit (I nervously pace while on the phone). My friend, saint that she is, when she could get in a word in, said precisely the things I’d been needing to hear to jumpstart my life on the backside of a yearlong depression. For some reason, everything she said and everything I rambled on about suddenly made perfect sense. It all clicked into place. Only your best friends can give you the kick-in-the-ass encouragement you need precisely when you need it most.

Last year was not my best. I was in a fog of self-pity. I was turning 50 and didn’t know how that had happened. I’d let go of my health and fitness when I’d stopped exercising (because I was officially OLD now and who cares) and, because of my sloth, I was at my personally allowed maximum density, and my clothes weren’t fitting right or at all. My sons were growing up and moving on, and it was an ever-present reminder that they are on their way out of our home and my job description and that I had no idea what my next career move is or can be. My therapist, the one who had changed my life with EMDR therapy, moved away. And my sister was having serious health issues that blindsided the whole family. I was relying on outside sources to provide happiness without doing the work on the inside that would make a difference. I was spending way too much time playing mindless games on my phone as a diversion tactic. I sat in bed way too often. I was cancelling plans to stay home and binge watch shows in my pajamas. I could not be bothered to care. And I was making things worse by convincing myself that there was no real reason for me to be depressed. Certainly there were people in the world who were far worse off than I was with my first-world, privileged-white-girl problems; therefore, my lazy, apathetic behavior was anathema to me and only produced more self-loathing.

After yesterday’s conversation, this morning I felt clarity and drive again. I woke up at 6 a.m. and began writing about our trip to Africa over Christmas break. I drove the kids to school and on the way home I got a further boost from this morning’s sing-along song, The Middle (full lyrics here) by Jimmy Eat World. I’ve heard this song a million times, but today it felt meant for me.

Hey
Don’t write yourself off yet
It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on
Just try your best
Try everything you can
And don’t you worry what they tell themselves when you’re away
It just takes some time
Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride
Everything, everything will be just fine
Everything, everything will be all right

As soon as I arrived home, I saw a text from my friend, a continuation of our conversation from yesterday that essentially echoed the song lyrics that had finally reached my heart. I decided that the stars must be aligning. It’s the only explanation for how Regan at Alt Nation and my friend, Heather, would know exactly what I needed to hear this morning. I’d like to share, with permission, what Heather said to me because maybe you need to hear it too.

Life is short. We all know this. And one of the biggest parts of life is enjoyment. We all die, and most of us only leave behind a legacy to those the very closest to us. So we owe it to ourselves (whether we think we deserve it YET or not) to pursue what is driving us. To enjoy what gives us pleasure REGARDLESS of what we produce. Like [the band] Rush says, “The point of the journey is not to arrive.” You’re no less special than anyone else. You’re deserving to pursue what brings you enjoyment and to develop your God-given talents. Doesn’t matter if what you produce is earth shatteringly amazing!!! In fact, what you have already produced has touched people. But that’s not the point and that should not be the goal or the pressure. It’s okay to do something purely because you know it’s what is inside of you and it needs to come out. And on the days when that voice is yelling at you, you yell back! You say, “Hey, Evil Spawn Thought. Welcome. Welcome to my brain because I’m just gonna use you to fuel my enjoyment of what I’m doing because you help me be who I am. I overcome you daily and, though you mean it for my destruction, it’ll be used to make me an even stronger, richer person.”

I printed out these words and I put them on my writing desk where I will see them daily. The fog of depression is lifting. After jettisoning some mental baggage that is no longer necessary to protect me, I am ready to move forward. Halle-fricking-lujah!

Last fall, I planted some bulbs, something I’ve eschewed doing thus far in my life because spring in Colorado is predictable in its unpredictability, and the first buds are often murdered by a heavy, wet snowstorm. But I decided to be bold and take a chance. Having never planted bulbs before, I followed the planting directions to the letter, depositing the future tulips 8″ below the surface. Yes. I measured. This spring, I waited. And I waited. As I saw flowers sprouting up in other people’s yards, my flower bed remained dormant. I began to wonder if they were ever going to grow. Perhaps I’d gotten a bum batch of bulbs? I watched that patch of dirt next to our patio like I was waiting for a million-dollar package to sprout up there. Every day I surveyed it with cautious optimism. I moved the mulch around looking for the tiniest inkling of life. And then, one day, a crocus popped up along the border. Not long after, some narcissus joined in. And at long last the tulip leaves began to push their way into the sun and follow suit. This morning, after weeks of anticipation, I could at last see the vibrant color of one tightly still-closed tulip. It had happened. I’d actually grown something.

Thinking about it now, in the light of the past twenty four hours, maybe that small garden plot was a sign for me too. Maybe it was never about growing something in particular. Perhaps it was always just about growing, however it happened.

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Oh No! She’s Gone Full KonMari!

IMG_4015Let go or be dragged.  ~Zen Proverb

A few weeks ago while I was out of town, my husband messaged me and told me he had been watching the popular Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I rolled my eyes. He’s always loved the idea of simplifying, even as he continued to purchase new travel bags and backpacks, the latest home automation gadgets, and new paraphernalia for his hobbies. It’s quite a conundrum for him, the desire to pare down while feeling the pull of shiny things. Still, he said he was cleaning out his closet using the KonMari method, going through boxes of old sweaters and t-shirts I have been begging him to jettison for years. That had to be good, right?  

When I got home and witnessed the magic Marie’s art of tidying up had brought to his closet and office, I got a little inspired myself. Although I twice yearly empty my closet of items that didn’t see the light of day over the past few seasons, I emptied my closet of everything, setting it neatly on the bed, and appraising each item in terms of joy. In some cases, the decisions were easy. Love the details on this top. This makes me look ten pounds heavier. This dress gets so many compliments. Pretty sure I’m never getting back into this pair of pants. In other cases, I struggled. Eventually, I unloaded two full kitchen bags of items whose existence caused me a tiny discomfort when I opened my closet, either by being too small and therefore a reminder of how my body has changed or by inspiring guilty feelings knowing I had wasted money on them. And, in the end, when I looked at the closet filled only with items I can and will wear, I felt lighter. I told my husband I was grateful he jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon. 

This notion of evaluating things for how they make me feel has set me on a new path. What if I took a critical look at my life and assessed what areas are bringing me joy and commit myself more fully to those? Wouldn’t my joy exponentially increase if I said goodbye to obligations I accepted long ago when they fit me but which no longer make me happy? Could I eliminate some bad habits, like playing Toy Blast on my phone when I need to get out of my brain, and make space for activities that foster growth rather provide mindless escape? What if I off-loaded some limiting thoughts that arose as a necessary protection mechanism but that now only chain me to an outdated version of myself? If removing items from my closet made space for mental tranquility, what were the possibilities if I examined the people and relationships in my life? I could start by reducing my social media footprint. From Facebook I could drop those who aren’t in my life in any substantive way, people whose posts and comments don’t align with the life I want for myself. Through that process, I would gain greater understanding of what is valuable to me and then I could consider the personal relationships in my life. Which ones make me better and more joyful? Which ones support and encourage and which ones frustrate, sadden, and tether me to past negativity? Where can I find peace and space without judgement by acknowledging my gratitude to people and situations I’ve outgrown and then taking a deep breath and moving forward purposefully without them? 

“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” ~ Marie Kondo

I’ll be honest. I’m nervous about undertaking this gargantuan mental and emotional cleanse. Tidying my house is a safe undertaking. Tidying my head space is discomfiting. But, like every other life on this planet, I am daily running down the clock. I can either let go of what doesn’t serve me or I can spend whatever time I have left in this beautiful world being dragged behind it like a water skier who has fallen yet hasn’t realized it’s time to let go of the tow line. It takes a special kind of stupid to keep repeatedly making the same mistakes. So, I’m letting go of what has been dragging me. I’m going to go KonMari on my life so I can wrap my arms around better things. 

 

Never Tell Me The Odds

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My son’s prized book collection hidden behind a clay tank he created and his Pop characters

Dyslexia. For most of my life, the word conjured in me a sense of doom. Like so many people, I imagined a dyslexic person would be sentenced to a life without reading, a life without higher education, a life being thought of as a dummy. I never imagined dyslexia would touch my life. And then I tried to teach my sons to read.

Joe struggled with simple character reversals, consistently transposing b and d and 2 and 5. He couldn’t say his alphabet, always leaving letters out, skipping from p to v. His first grade teacher gave him a failing grade in reading during the first trimester that year, and I could not figure out how a child in first grade who was learning to read could be failing at it. We later discovered Joe had ADHD and mild dyslexia. Luke’s reading issues were worse than Joe’s. Luke not only transposed letters but couldn’t seem to stop confusing entire words, like what and that and the and who. When we tried to get him to read to us, he had every excuse imaginable. When he hit third grade, he began falling behind and we had him tested. Luke was diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia. We were told he needed to be taught to read in an entirely different way from his classmates and would either need to enter an intensive reading program for three months, which meant taking him out of school for that period, or be moved to a remedial school. I was crushed.

At that point, we made the decision to put both boys into a private school for children with learning disabilities. There they received not only reading instruction delivered in a way that allowed them to catch up to their peers, but also individualized math lessons and time with occupational and speech therapists. They began to blossom. We all began to see their strengths more than their struggles and started feeling hopeful about their prospects despite their dyslexia.

People often speak of their heroes: brave soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and selfless volunteers. I have never believed heroism belonged solely to people who save other’s lives or make immense sacrifices. I choose to find heroism in those who face adversity and rise above. My sons are my heroes. They started out behind their peers and have been working to catch up since birth. They’ve never given up. They’ve never accepted less for themselves. They’ve figured out how to embrace their strengths while working to overcome their struggles. It’s been a gift watching them develop and grow and push beyond the limitations inherent in the way their brains are set up. They inspire me.

Luke reads every day in his free time. He is not a fast reader, but he soldiers on. He challenges himself. He never quits. In seventh grade, he got 100 pages into self-chosen Mein Kampf before deciding he might not be mature enough for it yet. Last year in eighth grade Honors literature, he read White Fang, 1984, Watership Down, Of Mice and Men, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and in his spare time he also read the 650-page biography of Steve Jobs and The Man in the High Castle. This summer he chose to read Homer’s The Iliad and then followed it with The Odyssey. On his Christmas list is a rare book about World War II written in 1948 by a Jewish soldier in the British armyHis teacher this year assigned Bless Me, Ultima and then said she was hoping they could compare that to Like Water for Chocolate, which she hasn’t yet assigned but he has finished reading anyway. I have no idea how this is the same kid who fought us when we asked him to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

A few weeks ago Luke said something I have been turning over in my mind since. He said, “Dyslexia is not a reason not to read. It is a reason to read.” And that sums up Luke. He’s Han Solo who says, “Never tell me the odds” or John Locke from television’s Lost when he exclaims, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” I’ve thought a lot about his attitude, about taking what is difficult and turning it to your advantage, about being told who you are and proving them all wrong. As a child, it’s easy to take what you are told about yourself and believe it. I know I did. But I think it’s time I start looking at life through Luke-colored lenses. Maybe all the things I was told I can’t do should become all the things I have to do. By my side will be the child who has shown me what it means to believe in yourself, naysayers be damned.

F.I.P.

“I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often–because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide.”     ~Glennon Doyle

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Splashy, aka Foggy Foo

On Tuesday night, minutes before we were scheduled to leave for our son’s high school Cross-Country Awards Banquet, I discovered our African dwarf frog belly up on the rocks at the bottom of his aquarium home. Although he (I decided years ago he was a he without any biological proof) hadn’t been acting himself for weeks and I had suspected this was coming, the knowledge he was gone left me with a frog-shaped hole in my heart where he had escaped like a cartoon character busting through a wall and leaving only his outline.

Nine years ago, as a heart bandaid after a life-scarring debacle in which my son and I unsuccessfully attempted to raise a tadpole into frogdom, I purchased from Brookstone (don’t ask) four fully grown aquatic frogs in small habitats. Each of my young sons would have two critters to care for. That was the plan, anyway. Although the boys named them, Padme and Anakin and Swimmy and Splashy, we all know how the story goes. I fed them. I cleaned their watery homes, bought their food, and looked for new plants for their decor. They were mine in all their froggy glory from the beginning because I had killed their tadpole and these were my mea culpa. Still, I told the boys that these frogs were temporary, short-lived pets and they needed to prepare themselves for that.

Padme, like her Star Wars character, was the first to perish that first year she moved in. About a year later, Swimmy and Anakin died within a few weeks of each other. I figured the last holdout wouldn’t last much longer on his own and I would be free of the stigma of the tadpole catastrophe and the work of the frog experiment. Splashy, who was now referred to by the unfortunate sobriquet Foggy Foo, however, continued to thrive. Research told me most most aquatic dwarf frogs lived less than five years in captivity. After six years, I began to suspect Foggy Foo was an anomaly.

Foggy and I worked out a marvelous relationship over the years. He recognized my voice and would emerge from his house when I called him. He did not do this for anyone else. He would swim to the top to eat when I fed him and had on occasion eaten from my hand. I would often pause during my day to check on him. I enjoyed watching him and listened for his muffled songs. We had a bond. He was my little guy. I loved him as much as any human can love an amphibian, although definitely not in the same way Sally Hawkins loves her amphibian in The Shape of Water.

My heart broke a little the night he left us. Although I compartmentalized the loss until after the awards banquet, when we got home I carefully lifted him via fish net from the bottom of the tank and brought him upstairs to the main floor commode. I gathered my men, gently deposited Foggy’s lifeless form into the bowl, and we said a few words about our deceased friend. Float in peace, we told him as I depressed the high-flow option on the toilet and flushed him with great flourish to his final resting place.

I won’t lie. I shed a few tears Tuesday night. And, since then, I’ve shed a few more. I am verklempt thinking about him now. The space on the counter he occupied for years is desolate, and I suspect the frog-shaped hole in my heart is there to stay. Perhaps it seems silly to mourn a tiny frog who existed on the periphery of our lives, but the smallest things can hold within them the deepest of life’s lessons. That frog was a link to the days when my boys were young, noisy whirlwinds who made our house reverberate with life. With Foggy’s passing, I can see that my little guys are also gone, replaced by hirsute young men with booming voices and earbuds that render me silent. Letting go of Foggy is an acknowledgment that soon my sons will leave Joe- and Luke-shaped holes in my heart as they also escape my world. It sucks and it’s worth a few tears.

I am working on the Buddhist notion of patient acceptance, knowing that the most important thing I can do for myself in this life is to welcome what is without wanting to change it. This is much easier said than done. Joe and I will begin touring colleges next week, and I have no idea how we got here. But life is messy and emotional and difficult, full of reasons to laugh and cry. So, I will float on and be in what is and cry when I need to and laugh when I can because I am paying attention. I will practice my patient acceptance so I too can float in peace someday.

 

Lessons in Epic Smackdowns

“I crashed down on the crossbar, and the pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder.”  ~The Smiths

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Slimy Steps of Despair in Connecticut

A little over a month ago, my youngest sister called to let me know life had dealt her an epic smackdown. She was reeling. I was reeling along with her. And so I packed a bag just barely under the 50-pound limit, said goodbye to my husband and teenage sons, boarded a flight to Hartford, and settled into her home for an extended 5-week stay, presumably to offer comfort and make her life a smidgen easier.

A little over a week into my stay, however, the Universe decided one epic smackdown was not enough. On an unusually rainy day in the midst of an unusually rainy week, I grabbed Julie’s jumbo umbrella and headed out to collect a package UPS had left in the wet driveway. I walked out the back door and was descending the wooden steps from the back patio when my flip-flops betrayed me. With unbelievable flourish and zero panache, I caught serious air in a feels-like-slow-motion wipeout that would have won the day on America’s Funniest Home Videos if I had been unfortunate enough to be caught on camera. I landed butt-side down on the unforgiving edge of a step, one arm wrenching backwards and loosening the umbrella from my grasp, the other slamming onto the step beside me. From there, I proceeded to slide down three more stairs on my already tender tush because, well, I’m just that good.

I gave birth to two sons through induced labor. I suffered through seven years with gallstone pain before finally acquiescing to surgery. I had an emergency appendectomy. I am familiar with pain. When I at last came to a halt on those wicked stairs, the pain was exquisite enough to take my breath away. I began to sob a pathetic whimpering cry reminiscent of The Man in Black after Count Rugen ratchets his torture device up in The Princess Bride. I sat for a couple minutes while my tears disappeared in the soaking rain and tried to determine if I dared to move. I wasn’t sure if I had broken anything. I was afraid if I shifted in any way I would feel worse.

A couple hours afterward, already sporting impressive swelling and dark bruising, I found myself lightheaded, nauseous, and experiencing cold sweats. I had my sister drive me to Urgent Care. After examining me, the PA told me I had only a severe bruise and significant hematoma. The fainting spells were likely vasovagal syncope responses to the trauma. The numbness I felt in my hands was due to swelling and the whiplash I sustained in the fall. All of this was good news. I simply had a severe minor injury, which was still nothing more than a minor injury. Sure, I blacked out again during the car ride home, sending my sister into a near panic, and later I had to crawl up the stairs to bed after another fainting episode, but it could have been much worse. I lucked out.

I’ve had a plethora of time resting my backside on ice and heat since then to reflect on my mishap. I keep coming back to the first Buddhist Noble Truth. In each life, sickness, loss, and death occur. They are inevitable. The Universe, God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, insert your higher power here, doesn’t play favorites. The human condition is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter what type of life you lead, you will suffer. I arrived in Connecticut on my high horse, prepared to sweep in, full of sunshine and light, to help my sister deal with the unwelcome unexpected. I ended up on my sorry ass at Urgent Care with my own unwelcome unexpected.

It’s not what happens to us but how we handle what happens to us that matters. I can’t avoid suffering, but I can reframe it and refuse to let it define me. Two weeks have passed since my digger on the stairs. I am still bruised. I have what appears to be a permanent dent in my hindquarters. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of my experience. It’s not what I envisioned, but any time I spend railing against what is wastes my time here.

Epic smackdowns are growth opportunities. They are an elbowing nudge from the Universe imploring us to open our eyes. I’m awake now.

 

My Wandering Heart

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India photo op 

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”   ~Elizabeth Stone

Right now, if the above saying is true, my heart is walking around India. On Saturday, we drove our oldest to the airport at 7:30 a.m. so he could board a flight to Asia with fifteen classmates and three of their high school teachers. We had spent the better part of two weeks making sure he was geared up for this trip, both mentally, physically, and personally. We bought him the requisite power adapter and made sure he had adequate, quick drying clothing along with several sticks of deodorant we knew he would need in the 100 degree summer-in-India weather. Oddly, both my husband and I were calm and collected as we said our goodbyes to Joe and left him at the airport to embark on a 24-hour travel day, including a 15 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai, without us. There were no tears or histrionics, not even in the car on the ride home. I’m not sure how we pulled it off.

The decision to let your child travel without you is a leap of faith. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle, we began with training wheels. First, we sent Joe to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do some service work for five days during his freshman year. Last summer, we left him for a week at summer camp at the foot of Long’s Peak. This past March, Joe went to Grand Cayman to earn his scuba certification. Each time we let him go, he returned a little braver, stronger, and more self-possessed. Each time he left, we grew a little more resigned to the reality that he really is growing up.

Each time Joe has gone away, he has done so without a phone. For the trip to India, we were given the option to get him a cellular plan or let him take his iPad and use hotel Wifi to reach out when he could. For us, it was a no brainer. We weren’t sending him halfway around the world so he could ride in a van creating bunny-eared Snapchat photos as India teemed with life around him. He was traveling with responsible people who would be updating us and who had cell phones. He didn’t need his. He would experience more without it.

It never occurred to me that not letting him take his phone might seem foolish. It wasn’t until I was met with incredulity from other parents regarding my son’s phone-less status that it even crossed my mind that our actions might be beyond the pale. How could I let my son go halfway around the world without a way for me to check in on him? What if he needed me and was unable to get a Wifi signal? What if there was an emergency? I don’t let my son walk 1.5 miles to Target without his cell phone. What the hell was I thinking sending him to ASIA without one? I questioned my sanity.

Then while talking to another mom with a child on the trip, she showed me the app she uses to track her son’s whereabouts. She showed me exactly where our kids were at that moment, in their hotel, near a hospital in Mumbai. That was when I remembered why we sent him without a phone. As uncomfortable as it may be for a mother’s heart, this is Joe’s experience. He deserves the room to have it his own way without constant input and monitoring. If something comes up, he can be trusted to to figure it out. What he needs is the freedom to experience India and Sri Lanka without my two-cents.

Right now, it’s 1:35 a.m. in Mumbai, and my second heart is probably sleeping, exhausted after a day touring the slums of Dharavi and viewing that world through its first-world, teenage boy filter. My second heart, the one I grew over nine months and delivered into the world seventeen years ago, is having an 18-day adventure in life in southern Asia. It’s feeling and stretching and evolving. It’s not simply going through the motions and it’s not staring at its phone. It’s living in the moment unencumbered by its usual reality. That is worth a little sacrifice and emotional malaise on my part, being out of instant touch with my boy, one of my favorite people on this planet.

I won’t feel whole again until my heart is back with me. When it gets here, though, it’s going to be fuller than it has ever been. And the experience it has had will be a gift to me, not only because Joe will have grown in ways he never could have without this solo journey but because this time apart has given me an appreciation for what an open, curious, resilient person we’ve raised. He’s a rockstar, far braver than I was when I was his age.

Someday maybe Joe will give life to his own second heart and let it wander the world, adventuring without him, and he too will stretch and grow in ways he never imagined possible when he had only one heart.

Run Your Race

“I am better than I was yesterday but not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.”  ~Anonymous

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This kid 

Our oldest is coming to the end of his second track season. When he chose this sport last year (after I convinced him that coed track would allow him to spend more time with girls in shorts than boy’s baseball would), we were track virgins. We knew nothing about the sport save that the kids ran in circles and some jumped hurdles and some leapt into sand pits. As the season progressed, we began to understand the events, the lingo, and the skills necessary to be competitive in the sport. We learned that track is a race against yourself even as you race with others. The whole thing fascinated me. By the time this spring rolled around, we were honestly excited to drive an hour to sit for five hours to watch Joe run for no more than 7 minutes total. It’s official. We’re veteran track parents now.

Joe is a daddy long legs. The kid is 5’8″ tall with a 34″ inseam. His coach usually puts him in relays, as well as the 400 meter (once around the track) and the 800 meter. The 800 meter is considered the most difficult race because, unlike longer races, you don’t have time to pace yourself. You need to give it your all for both laps. It looks miserable. I don’t know how he does it, but he does.

Last week he told us that his goal for this season is to run the 400 meter in under a minute. He’s finished a few seconds off that mark a couple times now. This past weekend, I watched anxiously as he tried to break that minute goal. He almost always starts at the back of the pack and, bit by bit, as the other kids run out of steam Joe turns it on. He’s very incremental about it. He looks at the guy ahead of him and challenges himself to get ahead of just that one. Once that is done, he sets his sights on the next kid and so on. As he started down the last straightaway in the 400 last weekend, I noticed he kept looking around him, making sure no one was coming from behind. He finished well, with his new personal best time in the event, but still off his mark by .84. Less than one second now separates him from his season goal.

That night Steve and I told him that his goal is completely achievable at this next meet. Steve suggested wearing his cleats instead of traditional running shoes to shave off that final second. I told him to stop checking out the runners behind him, focus on his own lane, and keep his eyes on the finish line. That bad habit is slowing him down. There is no time for paying attention to others. Stop doing it and you will reach your goal. As the words rolled off my tongue, it occurred to me I should take my own damn advice.

The phrase you hear around the track is “Run your race” with the emphasis on your. And this is what I told Joe after he missed his goal by that fraction of a second. I have been repeating it to myself for days now. We all do what Joe does. We look around and make comparisons. We slow ourselves down by worrying about what someone else is doing or thinking or saying. And all it does is ruin our momentum and peace of mind.

Life is basically a giant track meet. What we have in common is that we’re all signed up to run. That is it. We come to the race with our different skills and baggage and attitudes and strengths. How we handle ourselves, how far, how focused, and how efficiently we go is up to us. We sabotage our own progress when we spend too much time worrying about what others are doing or looking back rather than focusing on the road ahead of us. Oh, the amount of time I have squandered perseverating over what others were doing or had done in comparison with my own efforts before I recently realized none of that matters. I could not have run anyone else’s race just as no one else is as uniquely qualified to run mine as I am.

Run your race, people. I wish you luck. Just stay out of my lane. I’ve got a personal record to beat tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.