It’s the only fictional-character-birthday I know, and not because I’m a big Tolkien nerd (though I am), but because it’s also my sister’s birthday. Just before my own birthday earlier in the month (or as I like to think of it: the annual reminder from my mother about what LABOR day REALLY means!) I read a piece referring to September as the fresh start of the new year for many pre-Gregorian-calendar cultures.
That feels right to me.
Maybe it’s because my personal calendar turns over its “counter” in September; maybe it’s because the rhythm of school-years imbued my early decades of calendar-use; or maybe it’s because I tend to start things at this time of year.
Case in point: my Blog’s (11th) birthday is today.
In its early years I posted several times a week—a frequency facilitated by the fact that I was freelance-writing for a living, i.e. always at the computer, and when I hit a wall and needed a brain-break, the most natural draw was the open browser-tab with my FUN writing in it. In recent years I’ve drifted away, and back, and away again… and today I notice that my “back-agains” arose in autumn or winter, every time. My creative life broadens as day-length dwindles. I’ve never made that connection until just now, counterintuitive at first blush… but in the next beat, I felt its truth.
My job, too, has a seasonal rhythm. Last week’s rodeo, the Pendleton Round-Up, marked an end to the months where a “day off” might mean only five work-hours instead of nine to fourteen. This week I’m filling our RV sites with monthly residents, traveling workmen arriving for construction on a nearby wind farm, and the processing of guests (phone call, reservation, questions, email, park map, check-in, orientation, more questions, parking, hookup, other questions, conversation, check-out) will drop from the turnover of a thousand guests a month to just a few dozen. You could say our “work-week” is organized on an annual scale: Spring as “Monday”, Summer as “Tuesday-to-Thursday”, Fall as “casual Friday,” and Winter—long-awaited and hard-earned—is more or less our weekend.
Well how fortuitous! The circannual rhythm of my Creative cycle may actually be synced with a job where I have TIME, just when I might actually be most disposed to (literally) make something of it. The purple index card taped to my roll-top desk just above my screen is my reminder:
Time is the currency of your art. In this transaction … writing accepts no form of payment other than your time. “
A person can BE A WRITER without publishing books you’ve heard of (or even, as in my case, published in books you’ve never heard of). A person can BE A WRITER without publishing anything at all, ever. It’s not the publishing that “makes” a writer—it’s the act of writing. So what a person can’t do… is be a writer if she’s Not Writing. In high school I lettered in cross-country, but (for several decades now) it would be inaccurate to say I AM a runner. Same goes, if I don’t engage in the act of writing.
But. Have you ever seen a visual aid of air-flow being deflected around an aerodynamic vehicle or shape?
That’s exactly like my brain’s response to a blank screen: it veers to the side so smoothly I don’t even notice I’ve been redirected.
I am really skilled–disgustingly skilled–at sitting down “to write” and then tripping down a rabbit-hole of writing-related-activity that is still Not Writing. I might be fiddling with settings or images on the blog, or fussing with my writing area, or (my most frequent offender) looking something up for the piece I’m “working on.” This summer I wanted to come up with a visual detail to add texture to a scene (a Manhattan street in 1841) and I ended up spending two days on historic maps and buildings and businesses and newspapers—finally pulled myself up, midway through reading the script of a play that had been onstage at the time… In two days at the computer, I had written one sentence. Framed as entertainment, it’s fine—I get a kick out of that kind of thing. But in terms of productivity? Fail!
If you’re not familiar with poker, the thing to understand is that you start a hand with some cards of your own, and you don’t yet know what other cards will be available to you to use in that hand. You have to “sign up” to play that hand by putting some money in the pot before the other cards are revealed, and there’s a minimum amount (the Blind) that’s essentially the baseline price of admission to play. Sometimes people will bid higher than the Blind (if the cards they CAN see bode well for play, or if they want their opponents to THINK that), but sometimes a player will hope to see the next few cards without investing a great deal up front. Calling the Blind, or going in for the minimum amount, is called Gypsying, or Limping in.
The other day my counselor told me several times that the word “Gypsy” describes me. (I don’t think he even knows that I literally do live on wheels, in an RV!) In that same day, reading a book about Borderline Personality Disorder*, I got forehead-smacked by chapter-headings titled “Playing the Dealt Hand,” and “Learning to How to Limp.”
With the word “Gypsy” on my mind, and the poker-connection of Gypsying or Limping, those headings felt significant, so I read mindfully; I believe in Messages rather than Coincidence. (“As my first Sponsor always said, “Coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous!”)
The chapter in question talked about practicing change, which can be “a monumental struggle” for a Borderline Personality. Okay, that sounded odd to me at first, given my own very-varied past performances in Life… On the surface, you wouldn’t tag me as a person who struggles with change.
I’ve been keeping journals since I was six years old. That first diary is a real gem, with one-sentence entries like: “Today I went crazy and thawt I was a frog.” I wish I remembered the story behind that… The trouble with keeping journals, though, has always been the fact that when you have the most material to write about, that’s just the time when you have the least time in which to write it!
Traveling is a perfect example. Just when you’re experiencing the most new things that you’d like to record, you’re too busy experiencing them to write about them. So my junior-high journal records every detail of school days—even though I had 180 of those every year that were almost exactly alike—but it just hit the highlights of the weeks my parents took us to Europe.
For the last couple years this blog has replaced my journal, and that same principle applies to the last couple months. More stuff has happened in the six weeks since I last wrote than in the whole previous year when I was writing near-daily posts about whimsical every-day stuff… We’ve had momentous events and joyful events and serious events and exciting events.
Three of our kids had birthdays (hey, that’s a big deal when you’re under-eighteen!), two of our kids had new babies, one of our kids got married… The child who hasn’t spoken to us for a year since we “practiced tough love” and asked him to move out is talking to us again. (Yes, it’s because he wanted something from us. But—here’s progress—he’s still talking to us even though he didn’t get the thing he wanted.) We’ve been busy preparing for the opening of our restaurant. Keoni is recovering from two major surgeries (spine and knee replacement). Not one, but three in-family “feuds” have come to happy ends—the aforementioned son is back in our lives, my ex-husband and I are enjoying cordial communication after five years of near-war, and Keoni made peace with an uncle who’d been holding a grudge. And some deeper currents that maybe won’t be up for public consumption (because it’s not just about me—and as open as I’m willing to be about myself, its not my call to make that choice for other people just because they happen to be in my family)… But with all that going on, I haven’t made the time at the keyboard.
And… I miss it. So here I am again. But now there’s the second conundrum: when you’ve gotten behind and have a whole lot to say, it’s hard to figure out where to start or what to catch up on first… I guess I just have to remind myself that I won’t cover it all in a single post. Rather than trying to tackle all that today, I’ll just get the ball rolling with one funny little “small-world” story.
My A.A. Sponsor, Shannon, takes a trip to Mexico every year, to an off-the-beaten-path spot, and she has gotten to know some of the local folks (she attends A.A. meetings while she’s there) as well as some of the other visitors who come there regularly as she does. When she got back from her annual trip this year, she called me up with a story. She’d been chatting with one of her friends down there, another U.S. citizen who visits every year, and the topic of talk had turned to writing. The friend is a writer, and Shannon mentioned that she had a sponsee who’s also a writer. When she referred to me by name, her friend exclaimed, “Not ‘Kana’s Chronicles‘!” Turns out she’s a reader here. Is this a small world or what? :)
When I started out “journaling” here, I didn’t expect any readers aside from my husband and my parents—but I’ve come to love the connectedness of our community. And I’ve missed it over these last couple months! I have reading to catch up on, as well as writing—but I’d like to think I’m back. And clearly I have a lot of story-telling to get on with! Thanks to all of you who make it a PLEASURE to write here. I love you guys.
Thirty-five years ago today, my mother employed her primary Superpower and made a person. A day or two later I was introduced to a lifetime companion and playmate and co-conspirator and friend: my sister Karin. (She guides people’s pronunciation with this clue: “You park a KAR-in the garage.”) I turned three just a few weeks before her arrival, and my game du jour was tagging people with their initials. My new sister’s “KD” became Kadi to the family—a name that stuck permanently. (With the occasional variation, such as “Aunt Tadi” when my son Christian was little and couldn’t pronounce K.)
Kadi and her husband Scott visited from Seattle last weekend, and Keoni told me he was getting a kick out of watching the two of us, noting the facial expressions and mannerisms we have in common. It’s a funny thing, how amazingly alike we are, despite our very different lives. Even some of our random OCD eccentricities are a match, like our refusal to eat the last bite of a sandwich—the piece we’ve been holding while we ate the rest. Can that possibly be genetic? It certainly wasn’t something we learned together—we discovered the quirk-in-common as adults, when we met each other for lunch one day.
I don’t see my sister in my mirror, but I see her all the time in my photos. We insisted for years that we didn’t look anything alike (despite being taken for twins with some regularity), but then I began to mistake pictures of her for pictures of myself… When she first moved to Boise after graduating from Law School, she reported getting hug-attacked in REI by a perfect stranger—someone who obviously knew me well enough to hug me, but still couldn’t tell that she wasn’t me. I have occasionally gotten responses like “Duh” and “No shit” when I point her out or introduce her as my sister. Apparently it’s obvious.
Our family traveled a lot when we were growing up, so we were often the only available playmates for each other. Happily, we got along pretty well together—barring the occasional scuffle or argument, we enjoyed like minds and tastes and imaginations most of the time. Our mother has said of our six-month trip through Europe that we fought the first day, and then it seemed to dawn on us both that we would only have each other for the next half-year… So we made up—and stayed made-up for the rest of the tour.
Our friendliness is, in itself, a testament to my sister’s amiable nature. It’s not easy being anyone’s younger sister. She has gone on, though, to distinguish herself in arenas of her own—clerking for a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, working as a Deputy Attorney General for the state of Idaho, and now with a prominent law firm in Seattle. We’re pleased with the idea that we both make our livings at writing—legal briefs in her case, and random oddities in mine…
We used to write plays together, and perform them for the captive audience of our parents and grandparents. We had to make creative allowances for the small size of our cast, which led to some memorable adaptations like “Snow White and the One Dwarf,” in which she played the princess and I played everyone else.
Keoni introduced me to the idea of the ‘aumakua—the totem or guardian in Hawai’ian culture—and last summer it became clear to me that the Owl is mine. Owls were crossing my path, night and day, every time I was on the road with a writing assignment… When I wrote about the topic here, Kadi emailed me, expressing astonishment because she had developed a particular affinity for owls in the last year as well. I wasn’t expecting that, of course, but at the same time it didn’t surprise me. (I figure it’s our “Irish” coming out… Owls are totems in Celtic culture too.) Besides, we’ve always seemed to be on the same wavelength, even though our lives are outwardly so different.
Speaking of Hawai’ian culture, Keoni has asked me to tell her “Hau’oli la hanau.” When we say it aloud (how OH-lee lah huh-NOW), people often respond by telling us their age, thinking we’ve asked them, “How old are you now?” But it actually means—from both of us—Happy Birthday!
My “Radio Silence” over the last week is (I’m happy to say) the result of having been quite thoroughly engrossed in the activities of a first-week-of-summer-holidays with the kids… I started to write a few times, but never got as far as hitting “Publish,” so here it is, all at once…
Sat, June 2: Summer Holidays, and Synchronicity
On the list of things that make me feel old (for just a moment–and then I go back to just feeling like ME again)… We only have one grade-schooler left in the house, as of yesterday’s sixth-grade “graduation” ceremony for our son Christian. He’s now officially a Junior High Kid. And it’s now officially Summer Vacation!
In typical enthusiastic kid-fashion, the mugwumps have been trying to cram an entire summer’s worth of celebratory summer activities into the first 24 hours of freedom–we’re all having fun!
First project: Keoni is starting to grow kitchen herbs to use in his cooking, and he asked everyone in the family to paint one of his pots. Christian helped me carry one of our coffee tables onto the front porch, so we’ve established our summer craft-spot–which is already covered with paints, beads, spills from sand-art, and wood-shavings…
The wood-shavings are due to the fact that we gave each of them a pocket-knife to kick off the summer–both of them hand-me-downs with a history. Elena Grace has the Swiss Army Girl Scout knife, which my mother bought for me when we visited the international Girl Scout/Girl Guide center in Switzerland. And Keoni cleaned and sharpened a knife of his for Christian–rather a fancier model than mine, with more gadgets, and with inlaid polished wood panels along the handle.
We don’t have the budget to buy them new things very often, so I’m tickled by how much Christian loves this knife. It fits perfectly in his hand, he says, and its dents and scratches from previous use “just go to show that it’s not the kind of knife a person would throw away.” He often refers to himself and Keoni as “peas in a pod,” due to their similarities ranging from shared pack-rat tendencies to shared humor, and Christian’s uncanny ability to finish Keoni’s sentences. Particularly given how often he feels neglected by his own dad (Today’s comment: “Sometimes it feels like a lie when Dad says he loves me”), I’m grateful to see him bonding so strongly with Keoni. When Keoni hugged him goodbye before heading out to work today, Christian wouldn’t let him go! This from the kiddo who tends to be the most reserved of our seven…
Elena Grace is pleased by her knife as well, and has been wearing it clipped to her belt loop (as I used to when we went camping!) since we gave it to her. It’s her first pocket-knife, so she got the full safety-lesson before picking out a stick from our woodpile to try her hand at whittling. The point on that stick is positively scary, and she’s talking about trying her hand at spear-fishing in the lake by our house…
Today’s walk to the lake, however, was for swimming! And some play with Christian’s remote-control boat, which he bought last month with his yardwork-money… And yet another example of Synchronicity striking in our lives… But for this story I have to back up a bit.
When we owned our Hawai’ian BBQ restaurant, there were four couples from Hawai’i who “discovered” us in the first couple weeks, and who became close friends: Joe & Adele, Tedi & Larry, Wally & Esther, and Jeff & Val.
Joe worked for Honolulu Police Department the same time as Keoni’s dad, so we put him on the phone with Dad the first time we met–they’d worked different divisions, but had a lot of cop-friends in common. Tedi’s maiden name was Ka’anapu, the same as Keoni’s mom, so we put her on the phone with Mom the first time we met, and they puzzled through the family tree until they found the connection–yes, they’re related. Wally is Portuguese-Hawai’ian, and his cousin makes Portuguese sausage from their great-grandpa’s recipe (a Hawai’ian favorite, and the same type Keoni grew up with); we added their sausage to our menu, so Wally & Esther would sometimes show up with sausage in the morning and we’d all have breakfast together before the restaurant opened. Jeff crafts wakeboards, and gave us one (autographed with thanks for the food & Aloha) which took a place of honor on the restaurant wall. We have stories and memories with each of these couples, but haven’t been seeing them in the year and a half since our restaurant-days. Until the last two weeks.
Our phone numbers have changed (my cell used to be the restaurant’s number) but Joe decided to track us down a couple weeks ago, used his cop-connections to find our new phone number and gave us a call to see how things are going. He stopped by the house and we shared Tahitian Lanai banana bread and hugs and “talked story.” The very same day that we got Joe’s call, we ran into Tedi & Larry, shopping for the materials to make leis for graduating grandchildren. A couple days later Jeff pinged Keoni on Facebook to ask if he could cook for Val’s graduation-celebration. Her party was today, so Keoni was up at four this morning, cooking. By the time I woke up (thanks to kids climbing into bed with me, followed by Keoni with a very welcome cup of coffee) the house smelled amazing. It smelled like our restaurant.
We took all three kids to help with set-up (though when they discovered their services weren’t needed, the younger two accepted Val’s invitation to use the backyard trampoline), and Keoni sang a traditional Hawai’ian song for Val before we had to head out so he could get to work.
The kids and I packed our beach bags and ambled down the short stretch of country road toward the State Park and the lake, when Wally and Esther pulled up alongside us, waving like crazy. Turns out–as if to complete the quatrifecta (is that a word?) of reconnecting with these friends–they too had decided this week to track us down, tried our old numbers (they’re not Facebookers), driven around our neighborhood (they knew we lived right by the Park, but Keoni had already left with the KANAGRL license plates that would usually mark out our home), and decided as a last resort to inquire at the Park if I were still working there. They were pulling away from the Park-entrance, deciding they might be out of luck finding us, when Wally realized he’d just passed red hair and a dragon tattoo walking along the roadside, and turned the car around…
To put this timing into perspective, I haven’t walked to the Park since my last day of work there in September, and it only takes us about four minutes to walk that stretch of road–so the fact that we were ON that stretch of road while they were there specifically seeking us is nothing short of Pure Synchronicity. My favorite kind of story. :) I’ve had a warm glow all day–all these reconnections with old friends!
Mon, June 4: Super-Powers
With Keoni off work today and the weather hot and sunny, the family (minus 16-year-old Kapena, at his first day of Football Camp) spent the day at the beach! Though it’s easily within walking distance, we also have the gift (from my parents) of an unlimited State-Parks-pass stuck to our windshield, so we happily loaded folding chairs, snacks and picnic, inflatable inner-tube (bought on sale after last summer) and other “beachables” into the car. We stopped momentarily to chat with Lareen (with whom I worked last summer) in the entrance booth–noting that this was the third consecutive day she’d seen us, she wondered if this would be a daily meeting. “That’s the plan,” we all grinned–Family Time is precisely why I’m not in that entrance-booth this summer, as voted unanimously by the three kids…
Here’s a moment that any parent will recognize… When a pair of siblings, usually squabbly purely out of habit, have a moment of instantaneous and wordless communication with one another and they’re suddenly “in league”… You’ve seen it, right? It was one of those moments today, when Keoni decided to try out the inner-tube… Christian and Elena Grace had one of those connecting-moments, and with matching shrieks of maniacal laughter, the pair of them started to tow him across the small lake to “maroon” him on its island. (Pirates of the Caribbean has thoroughly pervaded their consciousness, as evidenced by Christian barking at someone on the beach, “Oy! No littering, you Scabrous Dog!” I swear I’m not making that up.)
Over Keoni’s own laughing objections that they couldn’t maroon him without at least a pistol and a single shot, I heard Elena Grace taunting him teasingly, “Where’s your kitchen NOW?”–which only goes to show that she has correctly identified the source of his Super-Powers… The Kitchen!
Wednesday, June 6: Symphony and Stones
This evening’s thunder-and-wind storm didn’t arrive in time to break our consecutive string of days-with-lake-visits, at least for Christian and myself. While Keoni took Elena Grace to Karate class (where she did not, at least today, cause any boys to cry), and while Kapena was finishing up Day Three of Football Camp, Christian and I walked once again to the lake. Too chilly today to tempt Mom into the water, but I sat with my writing-notebook and iPod and watched him–or his feet, rather, given his apparent interest in the lake-bottom today…
I’ve been corresponding this week with a Boise composer who is working up a program with the Idaho Dance Theater, and looking for poetry by Idaho women (preferably about Idaho and its rivers) for use with a vocalist as part of the current project. He had come across my earlier mention in this blog of an anthology of Idaho women poets and contacted me to see if I knew where it could be found. Sadly, the only place I’ve seen it in recent years is on my own shelf, so I offered him the loan, and listed some other anthologies and Idaho writers that might bear looking into. I used to teach an “Idaho Writers” lit course–so in my enthusiasm, it grew into rather an extensive list… He also kindly stated that he’d be interested to look at some of my work if I turned up anything that might fit the theme.
So I was watching my swimmer in this Idaho lake, and musing on my children’s Idaho roots (I was the first in my family to be born in Idaho, but they’re sixth-generation Idahoans through their paternal grandmother) and I ended up with pages’ worth of poetry… I’m still letting it simmer in my beach-bag (I usually find it’s a good idea to leave new poetry alone for a few days after it first hits the page) but I’m still mulling over an odd bit of synchronicity. Maybe it’s because I’d just finished Mrs. Dalloway and still had Virginia Woolf on my mind, but whatever the reason, my mind kept wanting to add a pocketful of stones to my son as I wrote about him. Not in the same morbid fashion as Mrs. Woolf, and I couldn’t figure out why the thought was so persistent, but it worked into what I was writing and I let it stay… An hour later when I beckoned his blue-lipped form out of the lake, he emerged, emptied his swim-trunks of a whole pile of rocks, and announced happily, “I’m collecting stones!” Hm.
The wind-storm began to kick up as he and I walked home, so we arrived (rather breathlessly) at our front porch–he with his swim-goggles donned against the wind, and his beach towel streaming behind like a Superhero’s cape.
Fri, June 8: Sewage Moat
Rain and wind continued through yesterday and necessitated a break from the lake… But I’ve always enjoyed a stormy day when I can stay cozily curled up with a book–AND a couple cuddly other readers…
We woke this morning to find ourselves possessed of a landscaping feature that’s not common in this neck of the woods… A Moat. Unfortunately, it has a strong smell of sewage, and appears to be connected with our septic system. (This is one of those days when I say a prayer of thanks that we’re renting!) Of course, sometimes the difficulty with renting is getting any action from a landlord, especially in our case where the actual landlord lives in Arizona, the delegated manager lives a couple towns away, and the on-site fix-it-guy (our favorite neighbor Bill, with whom we’re collaborating on a vegetable garden) isn’t empowered to make any decisions that involve spending money.
We’ve already run into trouble with this septic–as the weather warmed up in late April and the potty-smell around our place went from occasionally-noticeable to overwhelming, we called the manager to say the septic probably needed to be pumped. (A side note for those of you across the Big Water: “potty” here in the States means toilet, rather than crazy–I have to mention this after the hilarity of a British buddy some years back when I expressed delight that my newly-trained toddler was “going potty”…)
Four (smelly!) weeks later, a guy finally came to pump out the tank. Said he used to do the rounds here twice a year, but hadn’t been called in for almost three. Three years, that is. Come to find out, the pump was broken, water was flowing into the tank even though nothing was running in our house, and the grass around the tank, he told us, was “saturated” with… Ew.
Well, the pump got replaced, the tank got emptied, and here we are two weeks later with a full tank again, and a suspiciously smelly moat. We won’t be hosting any badminton tournaments till this gets sorted out!
“She’s not really mine to give away anymore,” the bride’s father said to me this afternoon, as we waited in the back yard for her to complete her transformation from jeans-and-flannel to white lace. “But I’d like to.” Adding the note to my scribbled-in Baker’s Wedding Handbook, I assured him with a grin that he would have the opportunity. “May I say, ‘With pleasure‘?” he wondered. I assured him with a grin that he could.
To borrow the bride’s phrasing, she has been married twice, but this is her first wedding. Embarking on a new life in middle age, she wanted to do it “right” this time—with family and cake and a veil and a minister instead of a judge.
The groom (for whom this is the first wedding and first marriage) simply wants to be married to her.
I was there to supply the minister-instead-of-judge component of a “proper wedding,” though faced with the unusual challenge of having the ceremony left entirely in my own hands. The bride had opted not to meet ahead of time, focusing her fluttery energy instead on the planning-details which wouldn’t take care of themselves, and leaving me to make my best-guess selections for the ceremony.
This is where I love my Baker’s book–a veritable buffet of prayers, vows, traditional ceremonies from different denominations, and “contemporary” alternatives… So left to my own devices, I mix-and-matched what I consider the best bits of each. Still, my usual list of logistical questions (Do we have rings? Music? Specific readings? Are there children? Is anyone giving the bride away?) were still unanswered when I arrived, so I had hooked her father to help me to fill in the blanks. Five grown children between the groom and bride, and Dad will finally get to give her away.
My greater challenge this morning was the blank page on my lap as I sat on the front porch with my coffee, looking for my own words to offer this couple whom I hadn’t yet met. (Well, I had met the bride last year, when I made a deathbed-visit for her mother—but our coffee-and-conversation on that occasion weren’t exactly suited to wedding-preparation purposes…)
My pen stayed still for some moments, empty of information about this pair. But then… I have plenty to say about Marriage itself, and so my pen began to flow. And though it was late in the morning, an owl began to call as I began to write. The owl—my ‘aumakua, or totem, or guardian—chose that moment to “make a joyful noise,” which (along with the “WoodOwl Drive” address of the wedding location) struck me as a positive omen indeed.
On an occasion like this, the pen doubles as a magic wand… The marriage itself now belongs to this husband and this wife, and it is their Calling now to nurture it—and each other––“for as long as they both shall live.” But I’m still awe-struck and honored by this ability to speak the words that create a marriage. There’s magic here, as surely as there is in childbirth or any other act of creation.
It wasn’t a Sermon the owl helped me write. It was a spell. The magical making of a new marriage.
Tricia Mitchell just posted a lovely blog about the castle in Heidelberg, Germany–accompanied by some of her own photos and memories of this castle over the years, and posing the question of whether her readers had memories to share. I wrote to her that although it’s been almost three decades since I’ve been there (and although I was only nine at the time) the details stick with me–like the memorable remains of the exploded powder-magazine tower.
Actually (here’s a bit of synchronicity), the inaugural entry in my 1984 European travel-diary was dated twenty-eight years ago today, as we headed across-country from Idaho to Chicago O’Hare, visiting family members along the way. Less than a week later we were flashing past the blue lights of the runway and out over the blackness of Lake Superior–hours past our usual bedtime–launching our first-ever off-the-continent adventure. My father the Planner detailed a six-month itinerary, looping and wandering through eighteen countries, some of which no longer exist on today’s maps. And our mother customized our rented bright green V.W. bus–which would serve as “home base” for half a year–with drawers under the seats, hanging-rods across the back, multi-pocket organizers hanging from the seats, and other “homey” touches.
My sister was six and I was nine when we set out, and our parents gave each of us a little Kodak camera, a bag full of 126 film, and a cloth-bound journal for the trip. One of the most interesting things, in looking back on the whole adventure, is the unique KID-perspective on our travels…
While the grownups took postcard-shots of cathedral towers, my sister gave us a running account of what was in the garbage cans we passed… We bought lace gloves at an outdoor market and donned them to pretend we were princesses when we explored castles…
When we stayed with dairy-farming friends near Stratford, we sneaked up and down the servant staircase in the century-old stone farmhouse, and took a whole roll of film posing my sister’s teddy bear, Tony, around the farmyard. When we stayed in an apartment converted from the basement servants’ quarters of a London townhouse, my sister came bolting out of the bathroom in excitement to tell us, “There’s a special bathtub just the right size for Tony!” Neither of us had yet been introduced to the concept of the bidet…
My mother has often said that if she ever wrote a book about the trip, its title would come from a now-family-famous quote from my sister… After months of encountering every imaginable method of flushing a toilet–from push-buttons and pull-chains to levers and foot pedals–my sister emerged from a Yugoslavian bathroom looking very self-satisfied, and announced, “I can flush in ANY language!“
When we descended into the underground areas of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, three of us didn’t think twice about the folding chairs set up for a recent ceremony. My sister, however, stopped in her tracks and cried out (to the amusement of every tour-group in the crypt), “There are DEAD people under this floor, and someone has gone and put CHAIRS on them!!”
Some of my parents’ friends wondered aloud what on earth would possess them to take such an extensive trip with such young children in tow, but we’re SO glad they did! (I think they are as well… At least, now that they’ve had a few decades to recover!) It’s a trip that couldn’t be duplicated by our adult-selves, even if we were to retrace our steps exactly–our imaginations ran rampant, and we found places-to-play everywhere.
We visited Anne Frank’s hidden attic in Amsterdam, and I began to read her diary that night, able to picture precisely the little suite of attic rooms. After Auschwitz, we talked late into the night about the horrors of the Holocaust. We read Classics of literature while visiting the locales where they were set. We visited tombs and birthplaces of historical figures, and sat in the bench of Anne Hathaway’s cottage where Shakespeare is said to have sat when courting her.
When our parents set aside half a day for the Louvre in Paris (thinking that’s all the art we’d be up for) we dragged THEM back for a second full day. We weren’t wild about the Impressionists, but we were fascinated by the rest. I bought a stack of postcards-of-paintings, tucked them into my sketch-kit, and tried to draw my own versions. (Though I do remember my mother suggesting I add underwear to some of the naked people I was drawing after dinner in a fancy French restaurant…)
And even in places where the “Ugly American” tourist-stereotype preceded us and affected local attitudes, our parents found that having young kids in tow often gained them a warmer reception. (I’m reminded of my son’s response when his second-grade teacher complimented his consistently kind manners: “She doesn’t realize that Manners aren’t optional when someone has you for a Mom.” OUR mom is like that too.) We learned to say “please” and “thank you” in the appropriate language for every border we crossed–and my dad also figured out how to say “Can you please suck the Diesel out of our bus?” in French…
We stayed with family friends in England, Scotland, West Germany, Poland, and Holland; we stayed in bed-and-breakfasts and pensiones and inns; we spent one week in a Tuscan villa, and we a camped in England’s Lake Country and in the Loire Valley of France (where we could hear the bells of the four cathedrals from the song our mom used to sing to us). The French campground also had peacocks wandering about–charming, no? Well, no—not charming when we discovered they roosted on the restrooms at night and screeched at anyone making a middle-of-the-night trip to the toilet…
I still marvel at my mother’s packing-job for this trip. She had sewed a mix-and-match wardrobe of red-white-and-blue for my sister and me (with matching outfits for our two dolls) and joked that if she lost one of us, she could point to the other and indicate “one just like that.” Failing that, she could use one of the dolls. She sent ahead caches of English-language books for us to pick up along the way, but other than the reading material, the four of us lived for six months out of five suitcases–one each for clothing, and the fifth with camping gear.
We each celebrated a birthday–I turned ten on Germany’s Rhine River, and my sister turned seven in Versaille, near Paris. We met up there for a double-celebration with our Great-Uncle Clarke, whose birthday the day after hers (he joked) made him a day younger. By this time my sister had gone through her own reading-material and started in on mine, so she surprised Uncle Clarke by inquiring, as they traversed a Paris street hand-in-hand, if this weren’t one of the locations in A Tale of Two Cities.
My sister lost five or six teeth during the trip, and the Tooth Fairy had to keep paying off in different currencies. We hiked in the Swiss Alps; we donned white coveralls and slid down wooden bannisters into a Polish salt mine where the miners had carved fantastical statues out of salt; we played “Queen of Idaho” in the extravagant Bavarian castles of “Crazy Ludwig”; we bought tulips at a Dutch flower auction; we rented paddle boats on a Hungarian lake; we hired a gondola in Venice (from a gondolier who said he couldn’t sing–so we sang Rounds to him instead); we made brass-rubbings of tombs; we collected charms for a memory-bracelet; we attended performances of yodelers and bagpipers and ethnic dancers; we rode trains and ferries and subways and carriages and double-decker buses; we went with a Dutch friend to be fitted for wooden shoes (not touristy, painted ones, but the type she wears in her garden); we tucked messages into a bottle for a Scottish friend of our dad’s to build into the tumbled-down bit of a 400-year-old dry stone wall he was re-assembling along his field. Maybe another farmer will find our notes a few centuries from now when the wall needs repair again.
My favorite stop of the entire journey was Portofino, Italy, with its steep cobblestone streets, its colorful buildings lining the Mediterranean harbor, and the gorgeous two-masted sailboat at anchor among the fishing boats. We ordered our first “authentic” Italian pizza here, selecting the menu option that offered “Olive, Pepper, and Mushroom.” When it arrived, the pizza had one olive, one pepper-ring, and one mushroom. (And in reviewing the menu, we ruefully realized they hadn’t promised plurals…) “Portofino” was the first poem I ever got published.
We traveled behind the Iron Curtain, and watched at the border between the Germanies while Soviet soldiers spent hours removing absolutely everything out of our bus, reading my mother’s diary, and unwrapping our Christmas presents. At the Polish mine, a hard-used miner my grandfather’s age approached us, removed an enameled shield from his jacket, and pinned it onto mine. Our Polish friend translated his quiet, almost shy explanation: it was an award for saving a life in the mines, and he wanted me to have it because he liked my smile.
We had a National Geographic map of Europe with us, and every evening during those six months we would open it up to trace the day’s adventures with a highlighter. The more permanent paths, however, were being highlighted in our minds. We may have been raised in an Idaho potato-farming town of a just few hundred people, but our parents gave us the gift of understanding–early on–that we’re citizens of the World.